Help Your Child’s ADHD Without Medication

By Katharine Paljug  @kpaljug
December 06, 2016

Seven healthy behaviors have the potential to improve attention disorders.

Medications like Ritalin or Adderall aren’t the only way to help manage the behavior of children with attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD). 

One study may give hope to parents who are torn between not wanting to medicate their young children and needing something to help their behavior. 


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Researchers from American University and Oregon Health and Sciences University compared the lifestyles of 184 children with ADHD to 104 children without it, all between the ages of 7 and 11 and drawn from a similar community. They found that children diagnosed with the attention disorder were less likely to have healthy behaviors integrated into their lives. 

The children without ADHD, meanwhile, were more likely to engage in healthy behaviors recommended by childhood development experts.

The seven healthy behaviors looked at in the study were screen time, sleep, exercise, sweetened beverage consumption, water intake, reading, and multivitamin or supplement use. These were drawn from recommendations by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Sleep Foundation, and the United States Department of Agriculture

Researchers found that children with ADHD were more likely to consume artificially sweetened juice and have more than two hours of screen time per day. They were less likely to read every day and to get regular physical activity. 

Causes of ADHD

ADHD is estimated to affect up to 10 percent of children. Its exact causes, and the causes of other attention disorders, are still unknown. Researchers have found, however, that between 60 and 80 percent of cases may be hereditary, which means that other factors contribute to the remaining 20 to 40 percent of ADHD cases. 

Previous studies into how lifestyle might influence attention disorders have investigated the behaviors of parents and environmental factors, including exposure to secondhand tobacco smoke and other chemicals. Other studies have found that children with ADHD are more likely to have disturbed sleep than children without attention disorders, but they were unable to conclude whether the trouble sleeping was a cause or a result of the disorder.  


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Managing attention disorders through lifestyle modifications

Unlike previous research into the causes of ADHD, the new study focused specifically on the differences in healthy behaviors between children with and without ADHD. 

Daily health recommendations for young children include at least one hour of physical activity, two hours or less of screen time, and drinking at least seven cups of water. The National Sleep Foundation has also found that school-aged children should get at least nine hours of sleep, though some may need closer to eleven hours. 

The Department of Agriculture recommends that parents limit children’s consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages like soda and juice. The American Academy of Pediatrics advises that parents give children multivitamins or supplements only under a doctor’s supervision, and that parents encourage daily reading starting during infancy.

Researchers concluded that lifestyle modifications more in line with these guidelines might help manage attention disorders, including ADHD.

It’s too early to say whether making these changes will eliminate your child’s need for medication, according to Kathleen Holton of American University, the study’s lead author. The study concluded that more research was needed to determine the exact links between healthy behaviors and attention disorders, as well as the potential impact changing these behaviors could have.

Still, the study gives many parents reason to hope that their children will not always need medication to manage their hyperactivity. "As research into health outcomes in children with ADHD continues to provide new insights, focusing on the overall number of healthy lifestyle behaviors may become important," Holton concluded. "Parents of children with ADHD should talk with their pediatrician about how to improve health behaviors.”


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April 03, 2020

Reviewed By:  

Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA