“From ADHD to ZZZ: How to Get a Good Night’s Sleep”
Have trouble falling asleep? Use these shuteye strategies to get some solid rest.
Reviewed on January 10, 2018
Sleep is key to maintaining overall health and wellness, preventing illness, improving mood, and building confidence. Sadly, many people with ADHD cannot shut their brains down at night to fall asleep.
According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, even moderate sleep deprivation — losing less than one hour a night of sleep—affects the academic performance of children with ADHD. The condition itself, along with the medications used to treat it, may disrupt sleep patterns, making it difficult to fall and stay asleep.
It is hard for any child (or adult) to be “good” when they are tired. If anyone understands the agony of not being able to fall asleep, it’s me!
As a child with undiagnosed ADHD until age 19, trying to fall asleep at night was one of my greatest challenges. I always dreaded bedtime. To me, it was torture time. The rituals I implemented and the things I went through to calm my mind were mind-blowing: counting flowers on my wallpaper, counting sheep, praying, listening to music, reciting my favorite commercials, reading — no matter what I tried I couldn’t get to sleep most nights until 3 a.m.
Trying to shut my brain down and to stop thinking about trivial things that occurred during the previous day — things like “I shouldn’t have said this” or “I shouldn’t have done that” or “Will anyone sit with me at lunch tomorrow?” — was excruciating.
I panicked as I watched the time pass; the later it was, the more anxious I was. I knew what would happen the next day: I would wake up tired, make careless mistakes at school, and daydream during class. It was a vicious cycle that I went through for years. I felt helpless.
Today, we better understand the pathophysiology of ADHD and the respective neuro-hormonal response to sleep, activity, and nutrition. We know why it is more common for individuals with ADHD to feel helpless when trying to fall asleep, since it is beyond their control. But there are sleep strategies that will put you back in control.
If you implement the following steps, your sleep should greatly improve. I recently reviewed the assessments of 31 individuals, ages six to 48 years old, whom I have consulted with. They have all been diagnosed with ADHD but not with a sleep disorder. Twenty-eight of them had problems sleeping.
I gave them several sleep strategies to try, and they all told me they slept better after following the advice. Plus it improved their mood and self-confidence the next day. Here are the strategies I recommended to them — and to you as well:
- Maintain the same bedtime every night. Give children under 10 years old one hour to get ready for bed. They can lay clothes out for next day or read a book. If you take melatonin, that hour will give it time to work before your head hits the pillow.
- Eliminate caffeine after 2 p.m. This allows ample time for an ADHD brain to calm down.
- Turn on a white noise machine, box fan, or vent fan when sleeping. This has been a godsend for my daughters and me. Every night the girls turn on their box fans, as I do, and, like clockwork, we are asleep within 30 minutes.
The white noise machine stimulates the production of serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine to restore optimal neuro-hormonal levels without keeping a person awake. The machine also drowns out distracting noises, like cars passing by, creaks in the house, or doors closing.
- Turn off all devices — TV, iPad, smartphone — 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime. My personal experience with my clients suggests that people who avoid using their phone an hour before bed have an easier time falling asleep. Instead of the phone, spend time journaling, reading, or getting books or papers together for school or work the next day.
- Melatonin is an effective sleep aid, especially when beginning a new medication for ADHD. Our bodies produce their own melatonin, but adding 1 mg. to 3 mg. of a melatonin supplement can improve sleep. I typically give that amount to my girls if they are stressed or wound up on a given day. Always ask your pediatrician or general practitioner before taking any new supplement or medication.
- Avoid napping — especially teens or adults who have ADHD. An afternoon nap will disturb the circadian sleep pattern, making it more difficult to fall asleep at bedtime.
- Maintain the same wake-up time and bedtime. Set multiple alarms, if needed, to get out of bed.
Sleep is a necessity for all individuals, but it is especially important for those diagnosed with ADHD. It’s amazing how refreshed you feel after a great night of rest. It is a game-changer!