Hours after bedtime, do you find your little one wandering the hall looking dazed and confused? If you have a sleepwalking child, you're not alone. It can be unnerving to see, but sleepwalking is very common in kids and most sleepwalkers only do so occasionally and outgrow it by the teen years. Still, some simple steps can keep your young sleepwalker safe while traipsing about.
Despite its name, sleepwalking (also called somnambulism) actually involves more than just walking. Sleepwalking behaviors can range from harmless (sitting up), to potentially dangerous (wandering outside), to just inappropriate (kids may even open a closet door and pee inside). No matter what kids do during sleepwalking episodes, though, it's unlikely that they'll remember ever having done it!
As we sleep, our brains pass through five stages of sleep — stages 1, 2, 3, 4, and REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. Together, these stages make up a sleep cycle. One complete sleep cycle lasts about 90 to 100 minutes. So a person experiences about four or five sleep cycles during an average night's sleep.
Sleepwalking most often occurs during the deeper sleep of stages 3 and 4. During these stages, it's more difficult to wake someone up, and when awakened, a person may feel groggy and disoriented for a few minutes.
Kids tend to sleepwalk within an hour or two of falling asleep and may walk around for anywhere from a few seconds to 30 minutes.
Sleepwalking is far more common in kids than in adults, as most sleepwalkers outgrow it by the early teen years. It may run in families, so if you or your partner are or were sleepwalkers, your child may be too.
Other factors that may bring on a sleepwalking episode include:
Of course, getting out of bed and walking around while still sleeping is the most obvious sleepwalking symptom. But young sleepwalkers may also:
Also, sleepwalkers' eyes are open, but they don't see the same way they do when they're awake and they often think they're in different rooms of the house or different places altogether.
Sometimes, these other conditions may accompany sleepwalking:
Sleepwalking itself is not harmful. However, sleepwalking episodes can be hazardous since sleepwalking kids aren't awake and may not realize what they're doing, such as walking down stairs or opening windows.
Sleepwalking is not usually a sign that something is emotionally or psychologically wrong with a child. And it doesn't cause any emotional harm. Sleepwalkers probably won't even remember the nighttime stroll.
Although sleepwalking isn't dangerous by itself, it's important to take precautions so that your sleepwalking child is less likely to fall down, run into something, walk out the front door, or drive (if your teen is a sleepwalker).
To help keep your sleepwalker out of harm's way:
Unless the episodes are very regular, cause your child to be sleepy during the day, or involve dangerous behaviors, there's usually no need to treat sleepwalking. But if the sleepwalking is frequent, causing problems, or your child hasn't outgrown it by the early teen years, talk to your doctor. Also talk to your doctor if you're concerned that something else could be going on, like reflux or trouble breathing.
For kids who sleepwalk often, doctors may recommend a treatment called scheduled awakening. This disrupts the sleep cycle enough to help stop sleepwalking. In rare cases, a doctor may prescribe medication to aid sleep.
Other ways to help minimize sleepwalking episodes:
The next time you encounter your nighttime wanderer, don't panic. Simply steer your child back to the safety and comfort of his or her bed.
Reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date reviewed: April 2013
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