Helping Your ADHD Child Get to Sleep at Night

by Glenn Hefley

There are several reasons children with ADHD may have problems falling asleep at night. While it is true that the biological makeup that creates the ADHD problem in your child doesn’t shut off just because it is bedtime, there may be other problems causing your child’s sleep disorders. If your child is having severe problems falling asleep, a doctor’s visit regarding this issue may be a good idea.

There is some talk amongst psychiatrists and sleep researchers regarding whether the sleep disorders exhibited by children with ADHD might be caused by the medications they are on. This would seem on the surface to be a given; however, a large percentage of children with an ADHD diagnosis who are not on medications also exhibit sleep problems. While studies into the areas of sleep and sleep disorders have advanced over the last few decades, we are far from understanding completely what goes on with sleep.

Now, with that said, let’s look at what we can do to help our ADHD child sleep at night, ideas we do know work or at the very least help.

As I have said in previous articles, consistency in routine is a key factor in the ADHD child’s behavior. For example, as soon as summer vacation hits my son loses the ability to sleep in only a few days. Let’s face it: summer vacation is a huge change in our child’s schedule.

One idea, which has had good success in our home, is the continuation of study period during the summer break. A single hour that remains consistent has had an impressive effect on my son’s summer sleeping habits. If you can continue any other scheduled periods that were in effect prior to summer vacation this can also have a positive effect on sleep habits and the general well being of your child.

In our house we have ‘movie night’, which is a scheduled evening where we go to the video store, rent a movie, make popcorn, and sit down together to watch the movie, every week, no matter what. Keeping that day during the summer vacation also helped the sleeping issues my son was facing.

There are children, such as my friend’s daughter, who are classic “night owls”. She lays her head on the pillow and her brain starts going. She is old enough to describe it to us and it sounds as if she is actually experiencing a peak of heightened creativity. Therefore, she has trouble falling asleep at night and getting up in the morning.

This state is commonly called ‘Delayed Sleep Phase,’ which is common in teens. Right now, the suggestion given to parents is to keep the scheduled wake up time as much as possible. The thought is that the nocturnal sleep pressure and bedtime will be able to advance.

Another element, which has worked with this particular girl, is background noise such as music (music with no lyrics or words). Jazz puts her right out, and also works very well with my own son. My personal theory regarding this phenomena is that the music is complicated enough to gain their attention, but repetitive enough to lull them to sleep. As the auto industry likes to say every chance they get; your mileage may vary.

Natural sounds such as rain, waves, or river schemas often help for background white noise. Some other suggestions are electric fans and radios tuned to an off-channel (static), turned down low.

Younger children are often subjected to our schedules as we struggle with jobs, longer hours, and rush projects. This often results in variable bed times, late afternoon naps, too many nap hours (or not enough), and a variety of other inconsistencies in our child’s sleeping life. Such schedules often result in the child being unable to sleep through the night, nightmares, and in some cases bed-wetting. While I too live in the real world where my time is not often under my own control, it is a challenge we need to face as parents. This challenge often requires some creative answers and scheduling changes.

Some other things to avoid are beverages and snacks with caffeine in them (chocolate for example) after 4 or 5 pm. Other common barriers to our child’s sleep are reported as being: incomplete chores or homework assignments, television shows that have a great deal of arguing between the characters or complaining, and even news programs. ADHD children are often hypersensitive to problems and conflicts, and tend to worry about these events even if they are fictional in nature.

Video games just before bedtime are a huge distraction to the ADHD child trying to wind down for bedtime, especially some of the new games with enhanced graphics. Try playing them with your child for a few hours and then lie down and try to sleep afterwards; you will see what I mean. The images continue to flash through our minds and across our mental landscape; just imagine what it does to a mind already on creative over-drive. Trying to take my son’s Playstation 2 away isn’t happening. However, we did decide that the afternoon is a better time to play, and we set up scheduled play hours during the weekends. Game time became a small and looked forward to event with his friends, which helped not only his sleep, but also with his social interactions.

Limiting physical activity before bedtime is another good idea. We use to have the harmless, but incredibly fun pillow fight on weekend evenings, and I have to say it was difficult to give that up, so we didn’t. We have it a little earlier, and then do some reading before bed time.

Consistency in my child’s schedule and mine has proven itself for many years. Strive for that, and avoid high-stimulation events before bedtime. You will find your child sleeps better and his overall well being will increase.