Bedtime & Sleep

Snoozefest: Tricks for An Easier Bedtime

Kids with ADHD are three times less likely to get enough shut-eye than their friends. Learn how a bedtime schedule, relaxation techniques, and keeping the bedroom dark can help them fall asleep easier.

Tired girl with ADHD sleeping while studying
Tired girl with ADHD sleeping while studying

Getting a good night’s sleep can be a big problem for children who have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD). Research has shown that 20 percent of these children have difficulty falling or staying asleep. That’s three times the rate among children who don’t have the condition.

A study from England has found that sleep problems are also common among parents of kids with ADHD. In the study, which involved 100 parents of children five to 17 years of age, 57 percent of the parents slept six hours or less, with 27 percent getting less than five hours. More than half of the kids got up at least four times during the night. Forty-two percent of the kids woke up before 6:00 a.m.

It doesn’t take much to figure out what’s going on here: When children are awake, it’s hard for parents to get any shuteye.

Sleep deprivation affects adults the way it affects kids: It makes them irritable (and sometimes depressed), impatient, and less efficient at just about everything they do. Adults who haven’t gotten a good night’s sleep are more likely to miss work. And sleep-deprived parents aren’t very good at managing their children.

The Biology of Sleep

There’s a biological reason why children with ADHD tend to sleep less than kids without the condition: Many of the same regions of the brain regulate both attention and sleep. A child who has attention problems is likely to have sleep problems, as well.

[Free Download: Sleep Solutions for Kids with ADHD]

You can’t change your child’s biology. But there are ADHD-friendly strategies to help kids overcome their sleep problems. Here’s what I tell parents:

Steer clear of sleeping pills.

Most sleep medications that work well for adults haven’t been adequately tested for their safety and effectiveness in children. That goes for the over-the-counter sleep aid melatonin, as well as prescription sleeping pills.

Doctors sometimes prescribe clonidine for children who have trouble falling asleep. The drug does make it easier to fall asleep, but its sedating effect lasts for only about six hours. Most kids who take it awaken around two o’clock in the morning.

Set a realistic bedtime.

Accept the fact that your child may need less sleep than other kids his age. If you put him to bed too early, there’s a chance that he’ll just lie there, wide awake, for an extended period of time. That will make him anxious — and will only increase the likelihood that he’ll climb out of bed and disturb your sleep.

[4 Get-to-Sleep Products for Restless Kids]

Whatever bedtime you establish, enforce it consistently — on weekends as well as during the week. Letting your child stay up late on Friday and Saturday nights will disrupt his circadian clock; come Monday morning, he’ll wake up with something akin to jet lag.

The hour or so leading up to your child’s bedtime should be devoted to reading, listening to music, or some other calm, relaxing activity. Allow him to have a snack (he won’t be able to sleep if he’s hungry). Violent TV programs and video games should be strictly off-limits at this time. No roughhousing, either.

Keep the bedroom completely dark.

In addition to cueing your child that it’s time to go to sleep, darkness eliminates the visual distractions that keep him from falling asleep. If a child can’t see his toys, he’s less likely to get out of bed to play with them.

What if your child is afraid of the dark and needs a light on to fall asleep? Make sure that the light is dim, and that it goes off once he falls asleep (use a timer or shut it off yourself before you go to bed). Having a light on in the room after midnight will trigger the waking cycle.

Look into relaxation techniques.

Deep breathing or listening to soothing music can make it easier to fall asleep. Research shows that kids who do yoga are less hyperactive. (You can learn more about yoga’s calming effect on kids from Yoga Journal.)

When a child refuses to go to bed…

Some children with ADHD — especially those who also suffer from oppositional defiant disorder or an anxiety disorder — will do anything to avoid going to bed. If you do manage to get them to go to bed, odds are, they’ll be up and about a short time later.

If this describes your child, your best bet may be a behavioral approach: Give strict orders for your child to stay in bed between certain hours, and sit outside her bedroom door to make sure she stays in bed.

If your child gets up, calmly tuck her back into bed. Then, in a soft but firm voice, remind her that it’s time to go to sleep. Reassure her that you will be nearby in case she needs you. After a few nights of this routine, she will come to understand that resisting is futile — and you’ll no longer have to sit vigilantly outside her door.

Use caution with this approach; it can be stressful for parents, as well as children. Don’t attempt it unless you and your partner both feel confident that you have the resolve and the stamina to follow through. If you allow your child to break the rules, even once, you’re sunk. Deviating from the rules is permissible only in the case of illness or some other special situation.

Dealing with a child’s sleep problem isn’t easy, but it’s worth the effort. Given the consequences of chronic sleep problems-for the entire family — it’s best to take action sooner rather than later.

[End the ‘I Can’t Sleep’ Cycle of Exhaustion]

Updated on September 20, 2019

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  1. My 11yo daughter is afraid of the dark. I know many kids are, as was I, but she is rediculous! She will not go near her room or bathroom at night unless someone goes with her and I have to stay in the room with her. That includes showering or bathing, using the restroom and getting ready for bed. I have to lay with her in bed until she falls asleep or she will not go to sleep and will throw a fit. Some nights I end up sleeping with her in the guest room because she can’t sleep or is afraid. I thought she’d grow out of it by now but it only seems to be getting worse. She says she “doesn’t feel comfortable by herself” or is “afraid” but can’t say why. Sometimes she says she doesn’t” feel safe”. We have two dogs that would alarm us if anyone entered the house and one sleeps in her room, but that doesn’t seem to help either! Anyone have any ideas on how to calm her fears and help her feel “safe”?

    1. That’s tricky. I am 15yr with ADHD, and I am frankly afraid of the dark. It used to be because of not knowing what was out there, but it’s become a more disturbing reasons. One, knowing what’s out there. Two, it’s too peaceful, and my brains thoughts run wild, not all of them are things you want to think about before bed unless you have nightmares. I lay in bed in the pitch black, and have more-or-less tamed my fear of the dark by making myself feel safe.

      For your daughters, try and fix what relaxes her makes her feel safe. Find out exactly what about the dark makes her safe. Don’t suggest things at first. Try and ask her to desribe to you what makes her afraid. Is it not being able to see, or is it that the shadows and dark images she sees becomes things that aren’t really there. That will help you tremendously, knowing what her fear is and then you can try and find out what solves it.

      Some things I’ve tried, that might help. Falling asleep to music. I can fall asleep to any kind of music, rap, pop, etc. But most people need more quiet music. Try and find something like that she might might like, nothing new though unless it’s intrimentsl. If it’s new, too much attention is devoted to it.

      White nose. Similar, but if the sound of voices keep her awake, this may help better. I use and app on my phone. White noise on its own doesn’t work for me, but adding a rythme to it does. I use a grandfather clock noise, and the white noise eleiminates silence, and blocks our disturbances, while he grandfather clock gives regularity and pattern to it.

      Do not talk about what won’t go wrong. If she’s anything like me, her brain is a jerk. If she hears you say something like “Are you worried somebody will break in? It’s okay, the dog will protect you” your are making it worse. (At messy for me) being told NOT to worry about something makes it much worse.

      Journaling. It actually can help with sleep. I also have an ASD (Asperger’s), and events from my life, conversations, and conflits play over and over in my head, trying to find the way I should be handled it. Writing before bed, however, takes a lot of that off my mind. Makes it easier to not think of anything. That’s another think, talk to her before bedtime. Maybe have bedtime be 10min eariker, Lay there in bedtime-conditions, and just talk. My brains is always active at night (I’m writing this at one in the morning), but getting as much as possible off the mind is really good.

      Get a body pillow. I don’t like coddling real people, but I can’t fall asleep anymore without my “person” pillows. I have four pillows, so two of them are an imaginary person I snuggle with, talk to, etc. I know they’re not real, but having a “relationship” with this imaginary person, even if you know it’s fske and are pretending, it really does help.

      1. These are amazing tips! Thanks for sharing your first-hand experience. I will try some of these. I like the pillows idea.

        Have you heard of EMDR? Listening to the grandfather clock sounds reminds me of that.

  2. Ok. Our foster son (soon to be adopted son) is 4yo and has been diagnosed with PTSD. We think the diagnosis should be more than that but don’t yet have a “name” for whatever it is that is causing his behavior issues. It definitely has all the hallmarks of ADHD but, to be honest, could be a lot of things. His biological mother has severe mental issues but we’re not sure what her diagnosis is.

    Don’t get me wrong, he’s an absolute joy, loves to laugh, is smart, and makes everyone around him beam with joy and we are 100% committed to him. We have fought VERY HARD to keep him. He is family no matter what. As far as his behavior issues, he constantly interrupts, has very strong emotional outbursts over the littlest things, doesn’t listen, and bounces off the walls all the time. He is very reactive and impulsive. He has to be the center of attention and needs constant affection. If he’s not the center of attention, he will literally climb furniture or bounce off of things to get noticed. If he doesn’t get what he wants he will immediately start crying, repeating what he wants over and over, then will start hitting or will put his hands around your neck and squeeze when all else fails. The only thing that calms him is TV but that is the WORST thing for him because once the TV gets shut off he completely looses it. Despite all of this we are able to keep him on track with rigid routine, love and affection, but also with stern correction and natural consequences.

    Bedtime is the WORST though. No routine seems to be working. When we first got him he was 2 1/2 and while bedtime was a bit of a challenge at first, he quickly got settled into a routine which included bath time, bedtime story, and then finally tucking him in. He would stay up for a time and just wander around his room (which was concerning) but soon was putting himself to sleep.

    Fast forward a year later and he now flat out refuses to stay in his bedroom unless one of us sits with him. That seems to have blown up in our faces. He will fidget and talk talk talk talk talk! He won’t be quiet for a single second and he knows if he doesn’t settle then he’s on his own. Sometimes he is able to go to sleep fairly quickly, but most of the time these tactics don’t work at all. We are at a loss of what to try next. We’ve tried everything the internet has to offer including quietly returning him to bed, reassuring him that we are there, that he is safe, routines, NOTHING WORKS.

    He’s been in therapy once a week for the past almost 6 months but there’s really been no improvement. We’re desperate to help him but we just don’t know what the right thing is to do to help him be at peace.

    Thanks for listening.

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