Living with ADHD can be frustrating for children and their parents. Parents may tire of constantly reinforcing boundaries with a child who has endless energy. Children may feel overwhelmed by their own hyperactivity and inattentiveness, or worry that their ADHD is a terrible flaw. These difficulties often come to a head at bedtime. Between 50% and 95% of children with neurodevelopmental disorders such as ADHD also show symptoms of a sleep disorder. For exhausted parents, the bedtime battle can be too much. But parents don’t have to spend the next 18 or so years fighting their children to go to sleep. Melatonin for kids with ADHD may help ease nighttime anxiety and insomnia, helping everyone in the house get a better night’s sleep.
Article at a Glance
- Most sleep problems in children with ADHD are behavioral, which means that routine changes are more effective than medication.
- There is no approved sleep medication for children, including children with ADHD, and prescription sleep aids may negatively interact with other drugs.
- Melatonin is a safe alternative to sleeping pills when other interventions do not work. Several studies have tested it in children with ADHD.
What is Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder?
Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder. This means that it affects the brain and first appears in childhood, though symptoms usually persist into adulthood. ADHD is characterized by problems with attention, impulse control, and hyperactivity, though it manifests differently in each person who has it. Some common symptoms include:
- Problems managing attention: Children with ADHD may hyperfocus at some times, being unable to pull themselves away from tasks they enjoy. At other times, they may be distractible, unable to concentrate at school, or unable to share a coherent train of thought.
- Problems with executive function: Executive functioning is the ability to plan, to manage emotions, and to control one’s own behavior. Children with ADHD struggle to control their impulses and follow the rules. They may miss deadlines, be unable to estimate how long it will take to do something, and constantly forget schoolwork and other important papers.
- Hyperactivity: Children with ADHD struggle with hyperactive behavior. This can manifest as always being in motion, as aggression or breaking the rules, as frequent interruptions, being unable to sit still, fidgeting, and a wide range of other behaviors.
How to Get a Child With ADHD to Go to Sleep
To help a child with ADHD sleep, parents first must understand why sleep is a struggle for these kids. Some common culprits include:
- Stimulant medications for ADHD, which make kids feel restless.
- Neurodivergence among children with ADHD. These kids are more likely to have co-occurring disorders and sleep issues.
- Hyperactivity. It can be very hard for children with ADHD to calm down.
- Issues with the bedtime routine. The challenges of living with ADHD can cause parents to resort to unhealthy bedtime routines, such as letting children stay up so late they get overtired or permitting screens in bed.
Helping a child with ADHD sleep better begins with talking to their doctor about their stimulant medication. In many cases, tweaking the dosage or giving it earlier in the day may be all that’s necessary to soothe nighttime jitters.
Some other strategies that can help include:
- Establish a consistent bedtime that you follow each and every night. Sing songs, read stories, or take a bath. This cues your child’s brain that it’s time to start winding down.
- Make bedtime a happy, low-stress time. Don’t yell at or punish children who can’t sleep. Instead, if a child cannot sleep, tell them they can stay in their room and do a quiet activity like draw or read, but cannot get up.
- Practice good sleep hygiene. Put children to bed in a cool room with comfortable blankets, and encourage them only to use their bed for sleep–not playtime. Do not use bedtime as a punishment, or use the bed for timeout. Encourage kids to be active during the day, but then embrace calming activities at night.
- Tend to a child’s physical needs before bed. Make sure they have eaten, have had water, and have used the bathroom. Teach children to use the bathroom without help so they don’t wake up and demand adult assistance.
- Do not put TVs or other screens in a child’s room. Consider reducing screen time if it tends to make your child anxious or hyper.
- Eliminate caffeine from your child’s diet.
- Encourage exposure to natural sunlight during the day. Spend time playing outside each day.
Effects of Melatonin for Children With ADHD
If changing your family’s routine doesn’t work to curb insomnia and rein in the nighttime fights, melatonin can be a safe alternative to prescription sleep aids.
Several studies have shown that melatonin can help children with ADHD sleep, and that it also may ease bedtime behavioral issues. A 2007 study, for example, found that it helped to regulate kids’ circadian rhythms, making it easier for them to fall asleep. A 2006 study found that, though better sleep habits could improve sleep in children with ADHD, adding melatonin to the routine offered even better results.
But what about safety? No research has found serious safety risks associated with melatonin use. A 2009 study followed children with ADHD who took melatonin for more than three years. Researchers found no adverse effects, suggesting that melatonin is a safe sleep aid, and is unlikely to cause long-term complications.
While melatonin is generally safe, it is important to consider that being “natural” doesn’t mean it is risk-free. Melatonin may interact with other drugs, and some children may respond poorly to it. It may also increase daytime sleepiness, and is not safe to combine with other sleep aids. So start with a low dose of 1-2 milligrams, then monitor your child’s reaction. Gradually increase the dosage up to 5 mg or so based on your child’s response and needs.
Life with ADHD can be a challenge for the whole family. And if no one can sleep, no one can function well. It’s important to talk to a doctor about ADHD-related sleep problems. But if behavior changes don’t work, melatonin might.