How Sleep Impacts ADHD

 

Sleeping studentThe last week or so our 8 month old baby boy has been waking up multiple times during the night. While websites and friends assure me this is normal behavior for a baby, I feel like anything but normal these days. I don’t remember being so tired in my life!

The biggest downside to being completely exhausted is that I simply cannot mentally function at 100% capacity during the day. I was actually meeting with a family yesterday and found myself stumbling over my own words and struggling to stay focused. This got me to thinking; does a lack of sleep increase ADHD symptoms for students?

Kids and Sleep

In general kids need more sleep than adults to function at optimal levels. Elementary-school students require around 10 hours of sleep while middle- and high-school students can function well on 8 hours of sleep. This is important because most students wake up around 6:00 a.m. to get to school on time. That means elementary school kids need to go to be around 8:00 p.m. and middle- and high-school kids around 10:00 p.m. to get the required amount of sleep. Parents…how many of you can honestly say your kids go to bed at those hours? Answer: Not many!

As many of you can probably guess, any less than the ideal amount of sleep makes cranky and sluggish students. These obviously aren’t the types of students who perform best in the classroom either. Some side effects for students due to lack of sleep include:

  • Inability to focus
  • Decreased motivation
  • Increased irritability
  • Slower processing speed
  • Cognitive impairment
  • Lack of energy
  • Frantic behavior (especially younger kids)
  • Weakened immune system
  • Poor judgment

Clearly these symptoms are not conducive to academic success. It’s hard to think about your Language Arts class when all you can think about is how tired you are.

Sleep and ADHD

Students diagnosed with ADHD naturally find it harder to concentrate in class, so they are already prone to lapses in focus and attention. A lack of sleep only exacerbates this issue, and can make school an absolute nightmare for students with ADHD.

A 2010 study of 2,463 students ages 6-15 in Taiwan found a strong correlation between sleep problems and symptoms of ADHD. Not surprisingly, those students who do not get enough sleep see an increase in their ability to focus and concentrate throughout the day.

Another extensive review of adolescent sleep studies found that kids who are diagnosed with ADHD actually have greater daytime sleepiness, higher rates of sleep apnea, and more body movements (i.e., restless sleep) during sleep time than students not diagnosed with ADHD.

So, research clearly suggests two things:

1) Sleep affects ADHD symptoms

2) ADHD symptoms affect sleep

This is a perfect storm of variables for students diagnosed with ADHD, and figuring out how to get a good night’s sleep is even more important for their ability to focus and concentrate throughout the day.

How To Help

As someone who struggles with sleeping on a regular basis I know firsthand how frustrating it can be. However, I do think there are some factors affecting adolescents’ ability to sleep that can easily be managed. In addition to making a conscious choice to go to bed by 10:00 p.m., students can also try the following.

  1. No screen time after 9:00 p.m. – this is my number one rule. Screen time is consistently linked to sleep deprivation. Not only does it throw off your circadian rhythm by exposing you to unnatural light, but it also does not allow your brain to “shut down” as it should before you go to bed. Avoid the temptation by removing phones, TVs, and computers from the bedroom at night.
  1. Exercise – exercise is a proven factor to being able to rest and fall asleep. We spend a ton of time sitting all day, so when school is over you should engage in some sort of physical activity. Afterschool sports, dance, and even drama all offer easy ways to participate in physical activity and be a part of your school.
  1. Limit stress – this may be easier said than done, but stress is a huge contributor to sleep problems. Learning to manage stress is essential to success in life. For students, stress usually comes in the form of academic demands or social demands. Make sure you are taking courses that are not overly challenging. Socially you should surround yourself with genuine people and avoid social drama.
  1. Eat well – sugar is the enemy of sleep. It’s ok to have dessert before bed, but you should try to eat a balanced, healthful diet throughout the day. Fruits, vegetables, and home-cooked meals will make you feel better at bed time. Avoid fast food and sugar, especially sodas. Also, kids should avoid caffeine altogether.
  1. Manage your meds – ADHD meds are stimulants and designed to “stimulate” your ability to focus and sustain attention. A downside to these meds, however, is that they can adversely affect your ability to sleep. Make sure you talk with your pediatrician about potential side effects of your meds and explore the different options when it comes to dosage.

Sleep is important for all of us, but for those diagnosed with ADHD it is essential to a successful academic life. With all that said, it’s time for a nap.