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How to Get Kids to Sleep: Bedtime Strategies for Buzzing ADHD Brains

Think you’ve tried it all to get your child to sleep? Make sure to review these basic strategies – from devising a smart bedtime routines to properly prepping a room for sleep – and consider other options to help your child fall and stay asleep.

A girl with ADHD is asleep in bed.
A girl with ADHD is asleep in bed.

As a pediatrician with a specialty interest in children with ADHD, I know that sleep problems are practically the rule, not the exception, for this group. It’s an issue that frustrates and concerns many parents, who come to me after they’ve run out of ideas for getting their child to fall and stay asleep.

Here are some strategies — from fundamental sleep hygiene habits to ideas for quieting a racing mind and more — that I’ve found particularly helpful in getting children with ADHD to sleep soundly.

How to Get Kids to Sleep: The Basics

  • Follow a consistent bedtime routine. Practice the routine with your child until it becomes a habit.
    • As much as possible, bedtime should be at the same time every night.
    • The hour leading up to bedtime should be the same every night. The routine can include a bath, story time, reading time, quiet play, drawing —whatever works best to wind down your child.
    • A drink of warm milk before bed may help your child sleep. Try preparing one cup of milk with a teaspoon of honey and a teaspoon of real (not artificial) vanilla.
    • Anticipate procrastination! In the routine, make going to the bathroom, brushing teeth, and (for those children who need it), a drink or a snack.

[Get This Download: Sound Sleep Solutions for Kids with ADHD]

  • Set up the bedroom to promote sleep:
    • For several reasons, it is best for your child to not have a TV in their bedroom and for you to limit screen time altogether (including from other electronic devices).
    • If possible, your child should sleep in their own bedroom.
    • It may help to turn down the lights (or switch to a dim lamp) in the last half hour before bedtime. The lower level of illumination helps the brain to slip into sleep.
    • The choice of a night-light or not, door open or closed, depends on your child’s needs.
    • Minimize noise coming from the rest of the home (like a TV in another room) as your child is trying to fall asleep.
    • Keep your child’s bedroom a little on the cool side. We generally sleep better in a cool room.
  • Avoid highly stimulating activities in the last half hour of the day. This includes video games, horseplay, and most TV programs.
  • Reward your child (in the day!) for following the bedtime routine. This will help motivate them to continue to follow the plan.
  • Plenty of exercise during the day (but not close to bedtime) may help your child sleep better at night.

How to Get Kids to Sleep: Quiet the Mind

Many children with ADHD have trouble slowing down their brain enough to fall asleep. The key is to distract your child from all the interesting thoughts that threaten to keep them awake.

Some helpful options:

  • For younger children, audiobooks can be very helpful. Start a short audiobook on a Friday night. (This way, there won’t be an issue if your child stays up later than usual to listen, since they don’t need to get up early on Saturday). By the second night, it should be familiar. By Sunday night, it’s practically memorized. Your child will find the familiar voice and story soothing and relaxing. Of course, when your child gets bored of the same audiobook, start a new one over the weekend, or when they don’t have school the next day.
  • Older children may prefer to listen to music. Have your child select one to two songs they like, not love, (you don’t want them getting up to dance) to repeat all night long. Soft instrumental music might make most sense to you as a parent, but it is best to be open-minded to your child’s choice. In the end, it doesn’t matter what song they choose as long as it helps them settle to sleep.
  • White noise is another option, especially if there is disturbing background noise from outside the bedroom. An electric fan works well — and if it’s too cool, have the fan blow against a wall.

[Read: Sleep Problems in Teens with ADHD – Causes and Solutions]

Is your child anxious about being alone in their bedroom at night? Settle your child into bed and comfort them. Then, tell them that you have to step out for something but will be back in one minute. Be sure to return in exactly in that time. (Your child might time you if they have a clock in their room.) Next, have your child close their eyes, and tell them you will be back in two minutes.  Continue gradually lengthening the time until your child falls asleep. With this activity, you are helping them to develop trust in your proximity.

How to Get Kids to Sleep: Other Strategies

Talk to your child’s doctor about these options for getting a child to sleep:

  • Melatonin is a natural sleep hormone available in supplement form that helps to regulate the sleep-wake balance, something that is often off-kilter in children (and adults) with ADHD.
  • For teens, a modest dose of caffeine may help. Caffeine is a readily available and accessible stimulant chemical that can mimic the effects of stimulant medication on a smaller scale — in other words, it can help an active, busy ADHD brain calm down, relax, and exert self-control. For many of my teen patients, some coffee with milk and an artificial sweetener works surprisingly well to relax the body and mind in the evening. And if doesn’t work, don’t do it again.
  • If your child takes ADHD medication, a low dose of their stimulant near bedtime may be the best choice when nothing else has worked.
  • Trazodone and clonidine are commonly prescribed sedatives that aid in sleep and are generally considered safe. Consider speaking with your child’s doctor about these options.

How to Get Kids to Sleep: Next Steps

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