Sleep and ADHD: What’s the Connection?

The link between sleep problems and ADHD is an area of increasing interest for researchers. There is not enough evidence yet to conclude that one causes the other, but a growing body of evidence shows the two often go hand-in-hand.

“We know that poor sleep and ADHD frequently co-occur; often sleepiness aggravates ADHD symptoms and ADHD symptoms make it difficult to go to bed, fall asleep, and sleep well,” said Karen Sampson Hoffman, a spokeswoman for the National Resource Center on ADHD.

According to an article in Education Week, nearly one-third of kids with ADHD “also have significant sleep problems, including insomnia, delayed sleep, and daytime drowsiness.”

Understanding the relationship between sleep deficits and attention deficits is complicated by the fact that the majority of school-age children do not get enough sleep.

The National Sleep Foundation recommends school-age children get nine to 11 hours of sleep each night, and that teenagers get eight to 10 hours of sleep. The group found that American students—particularly teenagers—regularly fall short of those goals.

“What we know at this point,” said Katherine Peppers, a pediatric nurse and mental health specialist, “is sleep deprivation can look very much like ADHD, and it’s very difficult to get an accurate read when 70 percent of our kids [overall] are sleep deprived.”

New Treatment Options

J.J. Sandra Kooij, founder of the Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder Network concurs that sleep problems seem to be an important contributing factor in some—not all—attention disorders: “ Based on existing evidence, it looks very much like ADHD and circadian problems are intertwined.” Kooij is also an associate psychiatry professor at Vrije Universite Medical Center in Amsterdam.

As the connection between sleep and attention becomes better understood, treatments for ADHD could one day include sleep-related interventions such as light therapy and better bedtime management. In one pilot study undertaken by Peppers and other researchers at Duke University and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, the results  “found that children ages 5 to 11 with ADHD showed improved symptoms after a 20-week program in which they and their parents learned abut the importance of sleep and how to create a good routine before bed.”

Step away from the iPhone… and bring on the soft music.