Updated 18 July 2017

ADHD medication does keep kids awake at night

Ritalin, Concerta and other stimulant medication prescribed to children with ADHD may cause difficulty sleeping, new research suggests.

The stimulant medications used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can keep some kids awake at night, a new research review confirms.

The analysis, published online Nov. 23 in Pediatrics, found that children given stimulant medications for ADHD sometimes developed problems falling asleep and staying asleep.

The medications - which include drugs like Ritalin, Concerta and Adderall -- already list sleep problems as a potential side effect.

But studies on the question have actually had conflicting findings, said Katherine Kidwell, a researcher at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who led the new analysis.

Read: ADHD medication FAQs

Plus, it's common for kids with ADHD to have sleep problems, whether they're on medication or not.

And some researchers have argued that medication may actually improve sleep, by easing ADHD symptoms in general, Kidwell said.

To get a clearer picture on the overall evidence, her team pooled the results of seven clinical trials in which children with ADHD were randomly assigned to take a stimulant or not.

It turned out that kids given stimulants tended to have more sleep problems, on average.

Read: Is Ritalin safe?

In one study, for instance, children on methylphenidate (the generic form of Ritalin) got about 20 minutes less sleep each night, on average, than children given placebo pills.

"We're not trying to encourage parents to stop their children's medication," Kidwell said.

"But we do encourage parents to talk to their paediatrician if they think their child is having sleep problems."

Their doctor may be able to switch the medication, or adjust the dose or timing of the doses, according to Kidwell.

Her team found that, on average, the more often a child took a stimulant during the day, the longer it took to fall asleep at night. So one way to address that could be to switch to an extended-release formula of the medication, taken once early in the day, the researchers point out.

Read: Long-term safety of ADHD meds not established

But parents and kids may also need advice on setting up good sleep habits, Kidwell said.

Dr. Trevor Resnick, chief of paediatric neurology at Nicklaus Children's Hospital in Miami, agreed.

"Make sure kids have a bedtime routine," said Resnick, who was not involved in the research.

"Have them go to bed at the same time every night, and keep electronic devices out of the bedroom."

Read: SA has one of the highest prescription rates for ADHD medication

It's "extremely important," Resnick added, that all children regularly get a good night's sleep, for the sake of healthy brain development.

He did stress, however, that only a minority of children will develop sleep problems related to ADHD medications.

It's a possibility that's been recognized, Resnick said, so the new findings are not surprising.

Kidwell pointed out that any medication can have any number of side effects -- and parents have to weigh the overall "costs and benefits" of ADHD drugs.

"This study just provides additional information on one of the potential costs," she said. 

Read more: 

Teens abusing ADHD drugs   

Side effects of ADHD medication 

More ADHD kids given drugs than therapy


Ask the Expert

ADHD Expert

Dr Renata Schoeman has been in full-time private practice as a general psychiatrist (child, adolescent and adult psychiatry) since 2008, currently based in Oude Westhof (Bellville). Renata also holds appointments as senior lecturer in Leadership (USB) and as a virtual faculty member of USB Executive Development’s Neuroleadership programme. She serves on the advisory boards of various pharmaceutical companies, as a director of the Psychiatric Management Group (PsychMG) and is the co-convenor of the South African Society of Psychiatrist (SASOP) special interest group for adult ADHD, and co-founder of the Goldilocks and The Bear Foundation ( She is passionate about corporate mental health awareness and uses her neuroscience background to assist leaders in equipping them to become balanced, healthy and dynamic leaders that take their own and their team’s emotional, intellectual, social health and physical needs into account. Renata is academically active and enjoys research and collaborative work, has published in many peer-reviewed journals, and has presented at local and international congresses. She is regularly invited to present at conferences and to engage with the media. During her post-graduate studies, she trained at Harvard, Boston in neurocognition and neuroimaging. Her awards include, amongst others, the Young Minds in Psychiatry award from the American Psychiatric Association, the Discovery Foundation Fellowship award, a Thuthuka award from the NRF, and a MRC Fellowship. She also received the Top MBA student award and the Director’s award from USB for 2015. She was a finalist for the Businesswomen’s Association of South Africa’s Businesswoman of the Year Award for 2016, and received the Excellence in Media Work award from SASOP during 2016.

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