Chicken or the Egg? — ADHD and Sleep Disturbance in Children

Circadian Rhythm Disorders

A growing body of evidence is shedding new light on the importance of childhood sleep. As ample research suggests, a good night’s rest has a significant impact on brain development and performance. It has been shown, for instance, that sleep directly affects an infant’s developing brain structures associated with higher-order cognitive processes. In many cases, babies lacking sufficient night sleep exhibit a variety of cognitive issues such as diminished attention spans and lower alertness.

Increasingly, sleep is proving equally important to childhood neurological functioning and development. Many researchers see a strong correlation between insufficient slumber and neurologically-determined behavior disorders in children. One of the disorders getting a great deal of attention in this regard is Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Primarily affecting children, this condition is characterized by symptoms such as chronic hyperactivity and impulsiveness.

The Relationship Between Sleep and ADHD

Does poor sleep lead to ADHD or vice versa? While there is no clear-cut ‘first cause’, each condition apparently influences the other. On one side of the coin, ADHD symptoms such as hyperactivity often contribute to restlessness, sleep-resistance, and poor overall sleep quality. In turn, each of these conditions may impact neurological functioning and therefore stimulate and exacerbate daytime ADHD. One seemingly builds on the other, steadily amplifying and intertwining each condition.

The elusive question of which came first eventually may be answered by further investigation. The important consideration now is the apparent connection between poor sleep patterns and ADHD. Current literature on the subject reveals that between 25%-50% of parents report sleep issues in children with ADHD.

Behavioral vs. Non-Behavioral Sleep Disorders


While ADHD and childhood sleep patterns are apparently connected, it’s important to realize that not all sleep disorders are behavior-related. Generally, these disorders fall into two distinct categories – Behavioral and Non-Behavioral. Those designated as Behavioral encompass the initiation, maintenance, and duration of sleep, as well as awakening during the night. Non-Behavioral disorders cover issues such insomnia, parasomnias (variety of abnormal behaviors during sleep), and circadian rhythms (internal biological clock that impacts sleep patterns).

Although research continues to build our knowledge about the hidden realm of sleep, there are many mysteries yet to be solved — including the exact causal relationship between abnormal sleep patterns and ADHD. Which is the chicken and which is the egg? Look to the future for that answer. Thanks to ongoing research into the treatment of ADHD, however, we, at least, have a substantial body of evidence suggesting the two are inextricably related.

Fortunately, explorations of Non-Behavioral sleep disorders have given researchers much more to go on. Scientists are overwhelmingly confident that one of the Non-Behavioral factors, circadian rhythms, has a profound and direct influence on sleep patterns and is known to cause Circadian Rhythm Disorder. Anything that disturbs proper circadian functioning — particularly conventional incandescent lighting — likely will compromise sleep quality and ultimately our daily functioning.

On an encouraging note, substantial evidence suggests that the negative effects of improper lighting can be reversed by bio-compatible LED light bulbs. LED illumination syncs with our circadian rhythms to promote optimal functioning of daily biological processes, such as sleep.

Source: Karen S. David G. Melatonin, Sleep disturbances in children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. National Institute Of Health

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