Just like other medications, drugs used to treat ADHD can have side effects. One of the most talked about -- and controversial -- effects of these medications is on children's growth. After a few studies found that kids taking ADHD medications don't grow as tall as their peers, many parents began to worry that the same drugs that were helping their kids focus were also stunting their growth.
It's natural to worry about your child's size. But before you switch or stop ADHD medications, it's important for you to know what the research has shown about the effects of these medications on children's growth.
How Do ADHD Drugs Affect Growth in Children?
Researchers have a few theories about how ADHD drugs might affect a child's size. One idea has to do with another known side effect of ADHD medications -- appetite loss. When kids eat less, they don't get as many nutrients and they don't grow as quickly.
Another theory is that ADHD medicine targets metabolic or growth factors that could affect a child's growth.
Some researchers have suggested that it's not the drugs, but the ADHD itself that affects children's growth. Yet, the research doesn't seem to back up this claim. One study showed that children with ADHD who aren't taking stimulant drugs are actually bigger than kids without ADHD.
Will ADHD Medications Affect My Child's Growth?
Whether ADHD drugs affect children's growth depends on which study you look at. Many studies have been done on the subject over the years, and there is a lot of disagreement among them. Overall, there is some evidence that ADHD drugs can interfere with growth in children, but that effect seems to be short-lived in most kids.
Researchers first made the connection between ADHD drugs and children’s growth back in the early 1970s. That’s when a small study showed that children who were on moderate-to-high daily doses of stimulant drugs gained less weight and height than children who weren't taking ADHD medications. When kids in the study went on a "drug holiday" -- that is, they stopped taking the ADHD drugs over the summer -- they gained about twice as much weight as the group that continued to take ADHD medications year-round.
The early studies on ADHD medications and children's growth lasted only a few months, making it difficult to determine whether the growth lag would be permanent. Findings from some studies with longer follow-up periods have been inconsistent, but suggest that differences in growth narrow over treatment time.
Before you panic and switch your child's medication, know that the slowed growth doesn't seem to be permanent. The biggest impact on growth appears to be in the first year of taking the medications. After that, the impact starts to decline. Eventually, kids on ADHD medications go into a "growth spurt" and catch up to their peers in height and weight. A study that followed children with ADHD for 10 years into adulthood found that the kids who'd been taking stimulants ended up no shorter -- or thinner -- than peers without ADHD once they were adults.
What Should Parents Do?
Until ADHD drugs have been studied for a few more years and researchers can get more insight into what happens to kids when they become full-grown adults, it will be difficult for researchers to know exactly how much of an impact ADHD medications have on children's growth. If your child is taking ADHD medication and is benefiting from the drugs, the improvement in behavior may outweigh any short-term effects on growth. That's something you need to discuss with your pediatrician or psychiatrist.
While your child is taking ADHD medications, the doctor should keep careful track of his or her growth. You might need to adjust your child's diet, adding more energy-dense, nutritious foods and snacks to balance out any weight loss that's occurring. In severe cases, medications that increase the appetite may be used for a short period of time.