Sleep disturbances in neurodevelopmental disorders


Sleep is very important to be able to function. This is true for children, as well as parents. Unfortunately, children with neurodevelopmental disorders often have problems sleeping and this can impact very significantly on their parents too. With too little sleep we tend to become irritable and this can lead to challenging behaviour in young people and to parents struggling to manage effectively due to their own feelings of frustration and exhaustion. It is therefore important to work together to try and help everyone get the rest they need.

We know that children with ADHD typically sleep far less than other children their age. This is often already apparent from birth. They tend to have boundless energy and find it very difficult to lie still as they need to move constantly. It is important for parents to remember that children with ADHD are not hyperactive on purpose to annoy you. They cannot help it, it is the way their brain is wired. There are things that can help: getting them in a very regular sleep routine, in which you start preparing them for bed time about 2 hours ahead of time. This may involve dinner, bath, story and goodnight kiss. It does not matter what the routine is, but it is important that it is the same every night. The aim is to condition the child to expect bedtime and to get used to settling down before. A key recommendation for children with ADHD is to get them to do lots of exercise during the day. If they are able to get rid of their energy during the day, they will be much more likely to be tired in the evening and fall asleep. Also, it goes without saying that their room needs to be quiet and dark and that they should not look at any screens for at least one hour before bedtime. If the above does not help, it may be worth speaking to your child’s doctor to consider if Melatonin may help. This is a natural hormone which is not addictive and can help a lot – but only if a sleep routine is already in place. If the child is so hyperactive that they just cannot bear lying in bed, it may be necessary to consider ADHD-specific medication. Keep in mind that people who don’t need much sleep will have career options in future that will give them an advantage where hours are unpredictable or where shift work is involved.

Children with autism often need more sleep than average and it is important to give them the opportunity. As routines are so important for children with autism, it is essential to get the child settled in a good one, which does not involve screen time for at least an hour before bed. Sleep problems in these children can be due to anxiety and finding ways to help them deal with that are important. Also, children with autism often have sensory sensitivities and getting the lighting, sounds and textures right for them, may be key.

Dr Annie Swanepoel – Elysium CAMHS Clinical Director & Consultant Child & Adolescent Psychiatrist


Mymwood Place is a Neurodevelopmental Disorder service for young people aged 12 -18 set within the grounds of Rhodes Wood Hospital in Hertfordshire.

Our goal is to see the world through the eyes of the young person and their parents/carers to provide the right support that understands the challenges that they face.

To find out more about our service or to make a referral, please email Beth Jerram-Adams, Referral Manager Rhodes Wood Hospital.