Written by: Austin Meadows
Updated March 3, 2021
Children who have ADHD are more likely to experience sleep problems (2), such as insomnia, nightmares, and hyperactivity at bedtime. Children with ADHD are also more likely to sleep fewer hours (3), experience shorter periods of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, and feel more anxiety about sleeping (4).
Sleep problems can impact a child's development and exacerbate ADHD symptoms (5), which is why they are so important to address. Many strategies are available to parents wondering how to approach their child's ADHD sleep problems and help their children fall asleep faster.
How Do I Get My ADHD Child to Sleep?
The National Sleep Foundation (6) recommends the following sleep amounts for optimal health and development:
- Toddlers: 11 to 14 hours/night
- Preschoolers: 10 to 13 hours/night
- School-aged children: 9 to 11 hours/night
- Teenagers: 8 to 10 hours/night
However, your child’s sleep needs may differ from the above recommendations and your pediatrician can help you identify your child’s individual needs. Children with ADHD tend to have more trouble sleeping than their peers, so it can be more difficult for them to sleep for as many hours as they should. If your child isn't sleeping enough for their age group, there are several research-based methods available that you can try out in hopes of improving their sleep quality and duration.
Limit Technology Usage
Studies of technology use in adolescents with ADHD suggest limiting screen time may help improve sleep. Adolescents with ADHD use technology more (7) than those who do not have ADHD. Higher technology use within this group is linked to less sleep on school nights and more sleepiness at school.
Nighttime media use (8) in particular is associated with less sleep and more sleep problems in adolescents with ADHD. Media use is defined as using technology to access social media, play video games, watch television, etc. More research is needed, but technological devices might negatively impact sleep because they emit blue light, which suppresses melatonin (9).
Avoid or Limit Caffeine Intake
Caffeine promotes alertness in all people, whether they have ADHD or not. For this reason, drinks and foods with caffeine should be avoided in the afternoon and evening hours when people want to wind down, so they are fully relaxed by bedtime. Caffeine can cause people to stay up later than usual and sleep less soundly.
Caffeine might be particularly troublesome for kids with ADHD. Research shows that adolescents with ADHD tend to consume more caffeine (10) and consume caffeine later in the day than their peers. Also, caffeine consumption in adolescents with ADHD is associated with increased sleep problems.
Promote Daily Exercise
Exercise affects sleep, with even small amounts of daily exercise increasing how long and how well a person sleeps at night. Research shows that children who have ADHD tend to exercise less (11) than children who do not have ADHD. As a result, increasing daily activity could have a more significant positive impact on the sleep of children with ADHD. However, make sure to limit exercise (12) in the last few hours preceding bedtime, as it may make it more difficult to fall asleep.
Studies have also found that increased physical activity can reduce ADHD symptoms (13), including anxiety and hyperactivity. If a child's anxiety and hyperactivity contribute to their sleep problems, then exercise could improve sleep by alleviating these related symptoms.
Enforce a Consistent Bedtime and Routine
Maintaining consistent bedtimes for kids is always important. Ideally, a child's bedtime should be roughly the same on both weeknights and weekends. When a child is allowed to stay up much later on weekends, they might have trouble adjusting to earlier sleep and wake times once the school week begins.
For kids with ADHD, a bedtime routine is even more important. A bedtime routine that is free from distractions helps calm a child in preparation for bed. Specifically, children with ADHD should avoid looking at screens, eating, and provoking strong anxious or sad emotions (14) in the hours just before bedtime.
A relaxing bedtime routine should consist of gentle activities that prepare a person for sleep. For example, a bedtime routine might include brushing teeth, putting on pajamas, dimming the lights, and reading a book in bed.
Create a Calm Sleep Environment
In addition to a relaxing bedtime routine, a calm sleep environment can promote longer sleep duration and higher sleep quality. The ideal sleep environment is dark, quiet, and relatively cool.
If the household or larger neighborhood is noisy or bright, there are tools available to help. For example, sleep masks and blackout curtains can shut out light. Earplugs and white noise machines can cancel out noise.
Blocking out nighttime sounds could be especially important for children with ADHD. Research findings suggest that nearby traffic noise (15) interferes with children's sleep and can increase symptoms of attention disorders.
Try a Weighted Blanket
A weighted blanket may help improve your child's sleep. Research shows that sleeping beneath a weighted blanket can improve sleep (16) in people with various disorders, including ADHD. Sleeping under a weighted blanket might even improve daytime ADHD symptoms (17).
Weighted blankets are exactly what they sound like — blankets that are heavier than average because they're filled with small weights, usually in the form of beads. Most weighted blankets are available in weights ranging from 5 to 35 pounds. Weighted blankets should not be used on a child younger than age 3.
Supplement with Melatonin
Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone our bodies release in the hours before bedtime. Sometimes, supplementing with melatonin can help people fall and stay asleep.
In one study, melatonin supplements increased the average sleep duration of children with ADHD (18) between ages 6 and 12. Although melatonin is available over-the-counter without a prescription, parents should consult with their child's doctor before beginning the supplement.
If your child has ADHD and isn't sleeping well, rest assured that you are not alone. There are many actions you can take to improve the quality and duration of your child's sleep.
Of course, if you believe your child has a sleep disorder, make an appointment with their primary care physician or a sleep specialist. Lifestyle changes can remedy most sleep issues in children with ADHD, but these symptoms are sometimes caused by underlying disorders such as restless leg syndrome, narcolepsy, or sleep apnea. Additionally, if your child is on medication to treat ADHD, you should speak with the prescribing physician about your child’s sleep concerns, as it may be possible to adjust the medication to help with better sleep.
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