How'd You Sleep Last Night? Getting to Bed on Time When you Have ADHD
I recently worked with a client struggling with her sleep habits, specifically, making herself to go bed on time, and it got me thinking – since sleep can be such a challenge for people with ADHD, what are some tactics other people use to ensure they have a good night’s sleep? So like I do, I looked to my ADHD network for answers and asked them this simple inquiry in a one-question quiz:
What is your most effective strategy for getting to bed on time?
As they always do, my network had some great tips and tactics. But before I get to those, I want to take a minute to talk about the relationship between sleep and ADHD.
Sleep & ADHD
According to the National Sleep Foundation, “one in three adults don’t get sufficient sleep on a regular basis.” Add ADHD to the equation and the stats for sleep problems get even worse. We know that getting a good night’s sleep is important for everyone, but it can be argued that it’s more important for people with ADHD. And of course, it’s also the case that ADHD symptoms, like a running mind and feeling “keyed up” can make it even harder to fall asleep.
Lack of sufficient sleep is a significant problem and makes ADHD symptoms rage. Dr. Vatsal G. Thakker, a psychiatrist specializing in mood disorders, ADHD, and sleep disorders, states in this US News & World Report article that, “proper deep sleep performs a reboot for brain cells” and that “sleep deprivation can be a ‘double whammy’ for people with ADHD.”
So sure, sleep is important for people with ADHD, but what if there’s actually a connection between the two? It’s widely reported that 75% of people with ADHD also have sleep difficulties. Now, some researchers are taking this idea one step further, like in this article from ScienceDaily, and proposing that “much of ADHD may in fact be a problem associated with lack of regular circadian sleep.” Researchers go on to say in the article that, “"We don't say that all ADHD problems are associated with these circadian patterns, but it looks increasingly likely that this is an important element."
So what does all this research have to do with going to bed on time? Well, a big part of the challenge is that people with ADHD tend to be “night owls” and frequently stay up late. Their sleep patterns and circadian rhythms are more night-oriented, but they’re still expected to get up early for work and school, which means they end up sleeping fewer hours than needed. Therefore, one of the most effective strategies for people with ADHD to get a good night’s sleep is simply getting to bed earlier than they’re used to, otherwise known as “getting to bed on time.” The information below identifies several tips and tactics from people with ADHD to help other people with ADHD make this shift and prepare themselves to get to bed.
Rituals & Routine
The most popular tactic to get to bed on time (by far!) was to have a clear ritual or routine that is followed nightly. Sometimes called a “sleep hygiene routine”, this tactic tips off your brain that it’s time to start winding down. Respondents offered several good ideas for a bedtime ritual, including things like:
Only light leisure activities (such as reading or listening to music) before bedtime
Get in to bed at the same time every night, no matter what
Limit TV time to an hour, then diligently turning it off when it’s time to go to sleep (or setting an automatic shut off)
Make yourself some tea to help you relax before bed
Listen to a podcast or music in bed that will relax you
Several people said that it’s important to leave enough time in a “sleep hygiene routine” for some downtime to let your brain and your body relax. Someone said that they go to bed early to allow themselves 45-60 minutes of reading time before sleep. Another person said that they use a Philips light alarm in bed, which gradually dims the light over 45 minutes. This could be a helpful tool to ease you into a state of sleepiness over a set amount of time.
People also said that they use external cues as reminders to start getting ready for bed. Some people use an alarm setting on their phone – when it goes off that means it’s time to start their “sleep hygiene routine.” Other people said it’s time to get ready for sleep after they put their children to bed.
One thing that many respondents agreed on was that if you’re going to spend time doing an activity before bed, make sure it’s one you enjoy! If you are reading a book that’s boring or too heavy, the dread of picking up that book could actually make you procrastinate getting ready for bed.
Medication was another tactic that people use to help them sleep. People identified both prescription medication and non-prescription sleep aids (such as melatonin and/or valerian) as useful. People who recommended sleep aids often said that they use them 1-2 hours before bedtime.
Some people also said that having someone else help them follow a schedule is helpful. One way to do this is have a sleep check-in buddy who can call you or text you to remind you to go to bed. Other people use a partner’s routine as their reminder – when your partner goes to bed, that’s a cue that it’s time for you to head to bed, too!
People also agreed that it’s important to limit or even “abolish” electronics from the bed. Answers varied greatly in how people do this, from leaving the phone in an office and closing the door to the office every night (which is also a great nightly ritual) to just making sure that the phone charger is not within arm’s reach from the bed. In any instance, having your phone in bed with you will likely tempt you to check your email, search for something online, catch up on Facebook, or even shop through an app – all of which keep your brain in “active” mode and doesn’t set you up for a good night’s sleep.
No Strategy & Other
I also got some responses from people that said things like, “I don’t have a strategy. I just try to force myself to go to sleep.” and “I don’t have a strategy… but I need one!” Answers like these just reiterate the need for helpful tactics to get to bed on time.
One person responded with so much helpful information that I wanted to share it with you in its entirety as a case study:
The challenge is making a commitment to a sleep plan and resisting the urge to get back out of bed when I remember something else that needs to get done and want to put a reminder into my iPhone. As a way of keeping myself from doing that, I started keeping a legal pad in the night table compartment where I used to keep my iPhone at night. If some random or urgent thought comes to mind as I'm settling into bed, I can write it down on my legal pad, without fear that I'll forget something if I don't go put it into my iPhone. The legal pad is also the first thing I pick up in the morning now (instead of my iPhone), which gives me a chance to revisit my thoughts from the night before each morning before I get out of bed. Sometimes, I'm really glad to have reminders from the night before right in my face upon wakeup--if something is truly a priority, then the reminder helps me to focus on the task or issue at the outset of my day (before other things start getting in the way). Other times, however, I wake up and realize that something, which seemed really important the night before is actually kind of trivial or feels less important when I revisit my legal pad in the morning. The legal pad also allows me to do a little journaling and a more "mindful" type of planning in the morning, which sets the right tone for the rest of my day, before anyone or anything else has a chance to demand my attention. Dedicating those first few minutes of the day to my own internal thoughts and feelings (as opposed to the more "reactive" thoughts and feelings that would arise if I reached for my iPhone) has also helped me tap into (and really appreciate) my own intuition and insight, and to be a bit more connected to my higher self throughout the day. And I didn't even realize the extent to which I was missing out on that until I took the iPhone out of my bedroom. Now I just have to figure out how to make it a habit, like, for the rest of my life. And that's always the biggest challenge when I find something that I know really "works" for me.
Good bedtime habits can make a world of difference in quality of sleep, which then has the potential to help decrease ADHD symptoms and help you increase productivity. If you’re already experiencing good quality sleep, then keep doing what you’re doing (it seems to be working for you)! But if you find yourself struggling to make the transition from “awake” time to getting to be on time, give two or three of these tactics a try and see how they work for you. And hopefully next time someone asks you, “How’d you sleep last night?”… you can say, “Great!”