Both a chat with parents on the playground and a quick look at the latest statistics will confirm that the rate of ADHD is skyrocketing in America. Between 2003 and 2011, diagnoses shot up something like 40 percent. Today one-in-ten children aged 4-17 has been diagnosed with ADHD at some point.
What's behind this alarming trend? Are we simply getting better at labeling and treating the problem? Or is something in our environment or behavior to blame?
Scientists have proposed a huge number of possibilities, from lead paint to genetics, and the question remains hugely controversial, but according to a fascinating new Washington Post article by Ariana Eunjung Cha a new possibility has recently been gaining support among ADHD researchers. What if many of the kids who look like they have ADHD are simply not getting enough sleep?
Are kids these days too stressed to sleep?
It's a simple idea, but the evidence for it is starting to pile up. Those with ADHD symptoms have been found to have a higher incidence of sleep problems, and scientists have also shown that the worse kids sleep, the more severe their symptoms. Other studies show that when kids get more and better sleep, their behavior and concentration improves.
No one is saying this link between poor sleep and ADHD explains anything near every case, but the connection is bound to be provocative nonetheless as it stokes one of contemporary parents' biggest worries: are kids these days simply too over scheduled and overstimulated for their own good?
"In an era in which even toddlers know the words Netflix and Hulu, when demands for perfectionism extend to squirmy preschoolers and many elementary-age students juggle multiple extracurricular activities each day, one question is whether some kids are so stimulated or stressed that they are unable to sleep as much or as well as they should," writes Cha.
One researcher in the field explains to Cha that, when she was conducting educational outreach about appropriate sleep habits, she was shocked by how many small children weren't going to sleep until 11 p.m. or later. "I thought there was an error," she comments, but further investigation confirmed that was the reality in many homes.
These sort of sleep-destroying habits are worrying, but it's important to note that sleep-linked ADHD symptoms can be driven by biology, as well as behavior.
According to data presented this month, in people with ADHD, levels of the sleep-regulating hormone melatonin rise later in the day, resulting in later bedtimes and less sleep overall. Also when when sleepless kids are diagnosed with ADHD, they are often given long-lasting stimulant medications that can actually make getting to bed at a reasonable hour even harder, creating a vicious cycle.
Sleep before pills
The bottom line is this: whether the ultimate cause of all this childhood sleeplessness is melatonin, medication, too much screen time, or activity overload, evidence suggests that a significant chunk of apparent ADHD symptoms are just exhausted kids acting like, well, exhausted kids. They bounce off the walls, fly off the handle at the slightest provocation, and can't maintain attention for more than a moment.
If that sometimes sounds like your child, before you really worry, have a long, hard think about your household's sleep habits. Simply slowing down some and turning in earlier might be worth a try before you phone the doctor or psychologist.