Holiday Disruption & ADHD: Sloppy Sleep

Sleep is notoriously difficult for ADHDers. Either we find it hard to fall asleep because our minds are racing or we forget to go to bed until we’re falling asleep sitting/standing up. All the traditional advice to solve these problems revolve around “sleep hygiene” (because hygiene in general is so easy) or bedtime routines.

What really sucks is that sleep is vital for optimal brain function, so when our sleep is messed up our brains don’t work as well as they might otherwise, which means that our symptoms are harder to manage.

Now add in the disruption of the holiday season.

Is it any wonder that we get overwhelmed so much more easily during the holidays?

A pinnable image of a child climbing the stairs to go to bed.

How much sleep do we really need?

When my son was born, I took some time to really look into the question of how much sleep we need. It’s definitely more than we think!

In general, if you’re getting less than 7 hours a night, you’re sleep deprived. How sleep deprived depends on your age:

Age groupRecommended amount of sleep
Infants 4 months to 12 months12 to 16 hours per 24 hours, including naps
1 to 2 years11 to 14 hours per 24 hours, including naps
3 to 5 years10 to 13 hours per 24 hours, including naps
6 to 12 years9 to 12 hours per 24 hours
13 to 18 years8 to 10 hours per 24 hours
Adults7 or more hours a night
Chart from The Mayo Clinic, at link given above.

Of course, there are other things that impact your sleep. Interruptions (like when you have small children) and hormonal changes (like with pregnancy or menopause) affect your sleep quality, age affects how well you sleep, and sleep deprivation increases your sleep needs.

What’s the point of sleep?

We actually don’t know all of the reasons we need sleep, but we do know a few things.

Perhaps the biggest reason is that our brains build up toxins during the day–all that thinking and firing neurons and so on creates a bunch of waste–and those toxins can’t be disposed of while we’re awake and creating more.

We also know that a lack of sleep contributes to a number of health conditions, including obesity, diabetes, and mood disorders. On top of that, sleep deprivation can often look a lot like ADHD because it affects the frontal lobe (where executive functions are managed). That’s why a sleep study may be part of the assessment process. (It is important that the professionals involved understand that ADHDers tend to have difficulty sleeping properly anyway.)

Sleep Problems and ADHD

The biggest issue ADHDers tend to have with sleep is struggling with actually falling asleep because our minds are racing. We just can’t turn that off.

Other problems ADHDers seem to experience more often than non-ADHDers include:

  • forgetting to go to bed due to hyperfocus;
  • not getting tired due to messed up melatonin production; and
  • non-24 sleep-wake disorder (N24–your circadian rhythm isn’t on a 24-hour schedule).

That Racing Thoughts Problem

Some good ways to get your brain to finally shut off and go to sleep include putting your imagination to good use and telling yourself a story; reading a book until you’re actually sleepy; and doing some kind of puzzle book until you’re sleepy. All of these things can be done in bed with the lights off, using a bedside lamp to illuminate your book if necessary.

That Hyperfocus Problem

The biggest problem I’ve found here is that it’s difficult to predict what is going to trigger hyperfocus. Setting alarms to remind yourself that it’s bedtime can be helpful with that, as long as they’re alarms you won’t ignore. Creating an evening routine that will get you to bed at a good hour (based on when you need to be up in the morning) can also help with this, particularly if your routine doesn’t include activities that you tend to hyperfocus on. For example, including reading in my evening routine would be foolish, as I’m likely to simply stay up all night reading!

That Melatonin Problem

Melatonin tends to be the first thing people suggest whenever someone says they’re having sleep issues. And it can certainly help you get to sleep and stay asleep, as long as you follow the guidelines. However, it’s important to know that you may need a very small amount (smaller than the pills sold in-store are, so you’ll have to cut them), and that there can be weird side effects. Remember, “natural” doesn’t mean “totally safe”!

When you’re taking melatonin (or any sleep-related medication), you need to take it around half an hour before you want to be asleep, and then you need to be in bed ready to sleep before you hit that mark. If you miss it, you might as well have not even bothered taking it. If your dose is too high or too low, you may wake up multiple times in the night or you may have disturbing dreams.

When I tried melatonin, I found that I couldn’t get the dose to where it helped me fall asleep but didn’t give me weird dreams. (When I say “weird” or “disturbing” dreams, I don’t mean nightmares, though some people have had that experience. Mine weren’t nightmares, but they did tend to be gory–just not scary.) When the dose was too high, I woke up in the night but did find it easy to fall back asleep.

That N24 Problem

N24 sleep disorders require consultation with a sleep specialist. I am definitely not able to provide assistance with this beyond recommending you keep track of your sleep as best you can if you think you have an N24 sleep disorder, so you have lots of data to present to your doctor.

What About the Holidays?

I don’t know about you, but during the holidays I have more trouble than usual following a sleep schedule. There are fewer demands during the day, and more fun things to do with family and friends in the evening. When my whole family is together, my brothers and I are prone to talking until the wee hours, solving world hunger and all that; when I was a kid, if I was sharing a room with a cousin, we’d stay up and talk all night.

What I’ve noticed is that my in-laws prefer an earlier bedtime, and I am considering trying to take my cue from them next time we’re all together. Other than that, the best thing to do is to get a solid routine in place and then create a contingency plan (as per two weeks ago) to follow as needed.

This week’s printable is meant to help you keep track of your sleep and figure out what helps you get enough sleep. There is a tracking chart included, as well as a worksheet to use for developing a functional bedtime routine for yourself. You’ll also find some information about good sleep hygiene, such as when to shut off your devices and what to drink before bed. I hope it’s useful for you and for your doctor, should you decide to seek help with your sleep issues!