What are the differences between how ADHD and sleep disorders manifest in children? The answer: there are surprisingly few. Sleep expert Vatsal Thakkar has suggested that there is a significant amount of children diagnosed with ADHD who are in fact suffering from sleep deprivation.

The symptoms of ADHD and sleep deprivation in children are more similar than not. Both are characterized by hyperactivity,—not lethargy and sleepiness, as one might expect for sleep deprivation—a lack of focus, aggression, and more. Because many general practitioners are not as familiar with the signs of sleep deprivation as they ought to be, they often diagnose excessively tired children with ADHD.

According to Thakkar, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine, “While there is no doubt that many people have ADHD, a substantial proportion of cases are really sleep disorders in disguise.” More than one-third of children and adults with ADHD may actually have sleep problems—not ADHD.

Sleep deprivation has become incredibly common over the last half century. In 1960, only two percent of adults slept for less than seven hours nightly, but by 2011, more than 35 percent were not hitting seven hours. ADHD diagnoses rose sharply in the 1990’s, likely in part to people getting much less sleep.

Experts recommend that school-aged children sleep 10 or 11 hours each night because getting enough sleep is critical for physical growth, memory, emotional regulation, and overall health. For parents looking to ensure that children sleep enough, Professor Thakkar advises limiting children’s access to electronic devices in the evening.

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