The ADHD-Sleep Connection

A recent study, presented at the American Physiological Society’s (APS) annual meeting, shows that teens with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may benefit from more nightly sleep. This finding got me thinking about the young children I work with, and whether a suspected or early diagnosis of ADHD might be premature. Let me explain.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

I’m not a doctor; I don’t proclaim to be, but I do know a thing or two about sleep. Think about your immediate network of friends and family — more than likely you know of at least one child diagnosed with an attention deficit disorder (ADD) or ADHD. And if you ask your friend what first made them suspect their child may have the neurological disorder, they likely had particular behaviors they cited.

The most recent National Survey of Children’s Health (2016) reports that 6.1% of children between the ages of 2-17 are diagnosed with ADHD. That statistic doesn’t include undiagnosed children, but 6 percent is still pretty significant.

On the whole, however, ADHD tends to impact executive functioning in those suffering from the disorder. If you’re unfamiliar with executive functioning skills, they include:

  • Paying attention
  • Planning and organizing
  • Staying focused through a task
  • Time management
  • Remembering details
  • Multitasking

Think about times when you’re not getting enough sleep. How does lack of sleep affect your life? Do you have difficulty concentrating or remembering things? You see where I’m going here, right?

Inadequate sleep

I’m not here to say that every child with ADHD is improperly diagnosed. But, as The Child Mind Institute illustrates, we do see similar traits between ADHD and the behavior of children not getting a healthy amount of sleep, so much so that it can be difficult to distinguish the two.

It’s pretty standard for children with ADHD to have sleep difficulties, whether it’s falling asleep or staying asleep — there are even studies showing that children with ADHD have a later circadian rhythm than those without the neurological disorder. And when our ADHD kiddos aren’t getting an adequate amount of sleep, their quality of life plummets as their executive functioning takes a hit — it’s a vicious cycle.
Having a bedtime routine is incredibly important for these children, especially for those who have difficulty falling asleep. A routine can help train their growing bodies to begin relaxing before bedtime. And while you might think your elementary-aged child has outgrown a bedtime routine, and today’s busy schedules make consistency difficult, all kids benefit from a set bedtime and routine.

The more sleep, the better

Back to that study I referred to earlier. In the teens with ADHD studied, researchers found that “Increased sleep may significantly [and positively] impact academic, social and emotional functioning in adolescents with ADHD, and sleep may be an important future target for future intervention.”

It’s not a huge leap to guess that if the researchers had performed the same study with younger children diagnosed with ADHD, they’d find that more sleep results in greater efficiency in executive functioning.

I see it all the time with young children with poor sleep habits who are carrying around a sleep debt. The Child Mind Institute addresses this perfectly, saying “Parents sometimes ask if a child might be misdiagnosed with ADHD when what’s causing his symptoms might really be a lack of sleep. And we hear anecdotes from parents of children whose ADHD symptoms diminished or disappeared when their sleep problems were solved.”

If you think your child can benefit from more healthy sleep, but you are struggling to make it happy, know that I’m here to help. I offer a complimentary 15-minute sleep assessment so I can get to know the specifics about your situation.

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