Editorials for Clinical Practice
CHADIS Co-Director and President, Dr. Barbara Howard is a regular contributor to the Behavioral Consult column of Pediatric News and an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
Dr. Howard is a developmental-behavioral pediatrician trained by Dr. T. Berry Brazelton at Harvard University. She is a national speaker on child behavior problems and is a past president of the Society for Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics. She was a contributing author for Bright Futures™, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Primary Care (DSM-PC) and Bright Futures in Practice: Mental Health and has served on national committees of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Poor sleep due to ADHD or ADHD due to poor sleep?
The day wouldn’t be so bad if he would just go to sleep at night! How many times have you heard this plea from parents of your patients with ADHD? Sleep is important for everyone, but getting enough is both more important and more difficult for children with ADHD. About three-quarters of children with ADHD have significant problems with sleep, most even before any medication treatment. And inadequate sleep can exacerbate or even cause ADHD symptoms!
Solving sleep problems for children with ADHD is not always simple. The kinds of sleep issues that are more common in children (and adults) with ADHD, compared with typical children, include behavioral bedtime resistance, circadian rhythm sleep disorder (CRSD), insomnia, morning sleepiness, night waking, periodic limb movement disorder (PLMD), restless leg syndrome (RLS), and sleep disordered breathing (SDB). Such a broad differential means a careful history and sometimes even lab studies may be needed.
Both initial and follow-up visits for ADHD should include a sleep history or, ideally, a tool such as BEARS sleep screening tool or Children’s Sleep Habits Questionnaire and a 2-week sleep diary ( These are good ways to collect signs of allergies or apnea (for SDB), limb movements or limb pain (for RLS or PLMD), mouth breathing, night waking, and snoring.
You also need to ask about alcohol, drugs, caffeine, and nicotine; asthma; comorbid conditions such as mental health disorders or their treatments; and enuresis (alone or part of nocturnal seizures).
Do I need to remind you to find out about electronics activating the child before bedtime – hidden under the covers, or signaling messages from friends in the middle of the night – and to encourage limits on these? Some sleep disorders warrant polysomnography in a sleep lab or from MyZeo.com (for PLMD and some SDB) or ferritin less than 50 mg/L (for RLS) for diagnosis and to guide treatment. Nasal steroids, antihistamines, or montelukast may help SDB when there are enlarged tonsils or adenoids, but adenotonsillectomy is usually curative.
The first line and most effective treatment for sleep problems in children with or without ADHD is improving sleep hygiene. Improved sleep “hygiene” sounds easy, but for children with ADHD and their parents, who often have ADHD too, changing behaviors can be tough! The key component is establishing habits for the entire sleep cycle: a steady pattern of reduced stimulation in the hour before bedtime (sans electronics); a friendly rather than irritated bedtime routine; and the same bedtime and wake up time, ideally 7 days per week. Bedtime stories read to the child can soothe at any age, not just toddlers! Of course, both children and families want fun and special occasions. For most, varying bedtime by up to 1 hour won’t mess up their biological clock, but for some even this should be avoided. Sleeping alone in a cool, dark, quiet room, nightly in the same bed (not used for other activities), is considered the ideal. Earplugs, white noise generators, and eye masks may be helpful. If sleeping with siblings is a necessity, bedtimes can be staggered to put the child to bed earlier or after others are asleep.
Struggles postponing bedtime may be part of a pattern of oppositionality common in ADHD, but the child may not be tired due to being off schedule (from CRSD), napping on the bus or after school, sleeping in mornings, or unrealistic parent expectations for sleep duration. Parents may want their hyperactive children to give them a break and go to bed at 8 p.m., but children aged 6-10 years need only 10-11 hours and those aged 10-17 years need 8.5-9.25 hours of sleep.
Not tired may instead be “wired” from lingering stimulant effects or even lack of such medication leaving the child overactive or rebounding from earlier medications. Lower afternoon doses or shorter-acting medication may solve lasting medication issues, but sometimes an additional low dose of stimulants actually will help a child with ADHD settle at bedtime. All stimulant medications can prolong sleep onset, often by 30 minutes, but this varies by individual and tends to resolve on its own a few weeks after a new or changed medicine. Switching medication category may allow a child to fall asleep faster. Atomoxetine and alpha agonists are less likely to delay sleep than methylphenidate (MPH).
What if sleep hygiene, behavioral methods, and adjusting ADHD medications is not enough? If sleep issues are causing significant problems, medication for sleep is worth a try. Controlled-release melatonin 1-2 hours before bedtime has data for effectiveness. There is no defined dose, so the lowest effective dose should be used, but 3-6 mg may be needed. Because many families with a child with ADHD are not organized enough to give medicine on this schedule, sublingual melatonin that acts in 15-20 minutes is a good alternative or even first choice. Clonidine 0.05-0.2 mg 1 hour before bedtime speeds sleep onset, lasts 3 hours, and does not carry over to sedation the next day. Stronger psychopharmaceuticals can assist sleep onset, including low dose mirtazapine or trazodone, but have the side effect of daytime sleepiness.
Management of waking in the middle of the night can be more difficult to treat as sleep drive has been dissipated. First, consider whether trips out of bed reflect a sleep association that has not been extinguished. Daytime atomoxetine or, better yet, MPH may improve night waking, and sometimes even a low-dose evening, long-acting medication, such as osmotic release oral system (OROS) extended release methylphenidate HCL (OROS MPH), helps. Short-acting clonidine or melatonin in the middle of the night or bedtime mirtazapine or trazodone also may be worth a try.
When dealing with sleep, keep in mind that 50% or more of children with ADHD have a coexisting mental health disorder. Anxiety, separation anxiety, depression, and dysthymia all often affect sleep onset, night waking, and sometimes early morning waking. The child or teen may need extra reassurance or company at bedtime (siblings or pets may suffice). Reading positive stories or playing soft music may be better at setting a positive mood and sense of safety for sleep, certainly more so than social media, which should be avoided.
Keep in mind that substance use is more common in ADHD as well as with those other mental health conditions and can interfere with restful sleep and make RLS worse. Bipolar disorder can be mistaken for ADHD as it often presents with hyperactivity but also can be comorbid. Sleep problems are increased sixfold when both are present. Prolonged periods awake at night and diminished need for sleep are signs that help differentiate bipolar from ADHD. Medication management for the bipolar disorder with atypicals can reduce sleep latency and reduce REM sleep, but also causes morning fatigue. Medications to treat other mental health problems can help sleep onset (for example, anticonvulsants, atypicals), or prolong it (SSRIs), change REM states (atypicals), and even exacerbate RLS (SSRIs). You can make changes or work with the child’s mental health specialist if medications are causing significant sleep problems.
When we help improve sleep for children with ADHD, it can lessen not only ADHD symptoms but also some symptoms of other mental health disorders, improve learning and behavior, and greatly improve family quality of life!
Dr. Howard is an assistant professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, and creator of CHADIS (). She reported no other relevant disclosures. Dr. Howard’s contribution to this publication was as a paid expert to MDedge News. Email her at