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Can't sleep, won't sleep!

Poor, inconsistent sleep (and the meltdowns that so often follow) is one of ADHD’s most debilitating symptoms. There is no magic cure, but parents who follow these guidelines do report more restful hours and less stress.

Nearly 50 percent of children and 75 percent of adults with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) report having trouble falling asleep. Some can’t wind down and turn off their brains at night. Others feel too anxious to fall asleep. And still others are prone to restless slumber — tossing and turning all night.

If this sounds like your child, you know the impact that poor sleep has on everyday functioning. Here, learn what you can do to help your child and yourself, such as creating a consistent routine and a relaxing environment for sleep.

Create a Routine

Your child needs a reliable bedtime routine, including a relatively strict bedtime and a full checklist detailing everything that must be done before bed.

Your child needs considerably more sleep than you do; his or her bedtime should reflect this. The guidelines as outlined by Sleep.org are as follows:

  • 0-3 Months: 14 to 17 hours
  • 4-11 Months: 12 to 15 hours
  • 1 – 2 Years: 11 to 14 hours
  • 3 – 5 Years: 10 to 13 hours
  • 6 – 13 Years: 9 to 11 hours
  • 14 – 17 Years: 8 to 10 hours

A 12-year-old child, for instance, who needs to get up at 7am should be asleep by 10pm at the very latest. However, since kids with ADHD tend to take longer to settle into sleep, it’s best to aim for the 8pm end of the scale and leave yourself wiggle room.

Additionally, build an “unwind hour” into the schedule. That means your child should be washed, dressed, and with brushed teeth an hour before you want her to go to sleep. During this hour, avoid any electronic screens, as these can disturb sleep. Your child can read, draw, or play with non-electronic toys during this time as long as she puts everything away before going to sleep.

Finally, teach your kids to unwind through meditation, which is entirely possible even if you have ADHD — check out this guide on mindfulness and ADHD for tips.

Analyze the Bedroom Environment

People with ADHD can become easily overwhelmed or overstimulated, which keeps them from enjoying a good night’s sleep. For this reason, your child’s sleeping environment should be comfortable, soothing, and free of distractions.

Air: Make sure your child is breathing quality air at night. If you live somewhere humid, get a dehumidifier. If your child is susceptible to allergies or asthma, get an air purifier for restful sleep. Make sure to circulate fresh air into the room by opening a window during the day if street noise makes it tough to do so at night.

Lighting: Make soft lighting available to your child if he wants it during the night, but otherwise keep light sources to a minimum. This includes any small lights from electronics, so either turn them off fully or place a piece of tape over the light indicator. Blackout curtains are always a good idea.

Bedding: Many people with ADHD suffer from hypersensitivities, which include discomfort with certain synthetic fabrics. Make sure your child’s bedding is comfortable for her, and choose a high-quality cotton for the best sensory experience.

Mattress: Is your child’s mattress conducive to the type of sleeper he or she is (e.g. hot sleeper, side sleeper, stomach sleeper, etc.)? If your child is a “hot sleeper,” for example, his mattress should boast breathability as well as heat conductivity and retention. Check to ensure the mattress scores well on relevant tests so that he or she can get quality sleep.

Keep Things Tidy

Clutter can easily stress out and overwhelm a child with ADHD, so encourage your child to maintain a tidy room by picking up every evening. This routine of consistent tidying habits can also be consistent in other areas of life. These strategies may help:

  • Create a place for everything in the room.
  • Your child should never go to sleep in a messy room. Incorporate tidying into a pre-sleep routine, making sure to highlight how little time it takes.
  • Avoid the accumulation of clutter by regularly encouraging your child to go through her possessions and get rid of things she does not want — and make sure she sees you doing so as well. Do not force her to keep things she have no use for or doesn’t like, such as presents from family members.
  • Teach him to make his bed and put away his pj’s first thing in the morning.
  • Get creative with your storage spaces in order to make tidying more fun and engaging.

Children with ADHD need just as much restful, uninterrupted sleep as do other kids, but it’s often harder for them to find it. You cannot control how your child’s mind works, but you can control her routines and environment.

You will face reluctance at first, and you will encounter resistance over limiting access to electronics and tidying the bedroom every night, but it is important to stick with it so that these behaviours become habits. Once this has happened, your child will not only be more likely to sleep well, he will also be able to keep up these healthy habits as he grows older and more independent.