Sleep deprivation can amplify symptoms of ADHD in children by diminishing cognitive function and taxing an already challenged mind. Symptoms such as inattention and focus are compromised, sometimes to the point where even someone without ADHD could be thought to have the disorder. Getting enough regular sleep, however, can improve, or sometimes eliminate, these same symptoms, so that treatment becomes much easier for both patients and doctors, according to Lisa Shives, M.D.
Shives is a sleep medicine expert, and the founder and medical director of The Linden Center for Sleep & Weight Management. She also is on the board of directors of the National Sleep Foundation and one of the four primary experts on the website www.ADHDmoments.com, helping to promote its “Making Moments” campaign that offers parents and educators advice on how to work with ADHD children.
“Symptoms of ADHD overlap with chronic poor sleep,” she said. She noted that there are very different sleep requirements for different ages. Elementary and middle school-aged children need 10-12 hours of sleep per night, she said. High schoolers need 9 to 9-1/2 hours and adults need 7-8 hours of sleep. “Nobody is at their best below 6 hours,” Shives said. She encourages people to get an extra hour or two of sleep on the weekends, if possible. Parents can help their children meet the challenges of ADHD by making sure they get enough sleep as well.
ADHD, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, includes symptoms such as forgetfulness, impulsivity, lack of focus, trouble paying attention and restlessness. It is a chronic disorder, but one that can often be easily treated with therapy and/or medication.
“Human beings are meant to sleep at night,” Shives said, “not up making auto parts or doing IT work... Everybody’s trying to burn it at both ends these days,” and “children (and adults) with ADHD are taking on challenges already. They are behind the 8-Ball.”
She offered her advice for making it easier to fall asleep at night and get in enough hours of sleep to help tame ADHD symptoms:
- Shut off electronics one to two hours before bedtime, especially ones that are used close to the face. The blue light that is emitted encourages wakefulness. “Nobody is listening to the “no electronics” warning,” Shives said. “That’s just fanning the fire of having a sleep disorder.”
- Try to be in relative darkness an hour before a desired bedtime.
- Listening to audiobooks can lull one to sleep – “Don’t listen to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” Shives said, noting the “wakeful” type of content it contains. She suggests something more calming, such as Jane Eyre, or some 19th century novel. Also, cognitive calming CDs and sleep CDs can help.
Untreated sleep apnea also is a condition that can cause sleep disruption and the symptoms that mimic ADHD. Often with children, removing their tonsils is all that is necessary to cure sleep apnea and improve attention and focus. “If your child is being diagnosed with depression, anxiety or ADHD, a benign step is to go get a sleep test,” Shives said. “ADHD is a diagnosis of exclusions…you have to rule out all of these other things to get to ADHD.”
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