SLEEPWALKING IN CHILDREN - a patient's guide
- Sleepwalking is fairly common among children
- It is estimated that up to 20 percent of children sleep walk occasionally
- Most children grow out of sleepwalking by adolescence
- It is advisable to gently direct sleepwalkers back to bed
- Treatment is aimed at keeping the child safe while sleepwalking
- Sleep clinics may provide medical treatment for severe sleepwalking
What is it?
Sleepwalking is not an illness but a sleep disorder characterised by walking or doing activities while still generally asleep.
The cause of sleepwalking is not known, but the disorder can be triggered by lack of sleep or psychological factors. The child may be anxious about something, but most children who sleep walk don't have emotional problems.
Sleepwalking in adults is more likely to be linked to mental illness, a reaction to drugs or alcohol, or epilepsy with partial complex seizures.
Sleepwalking is reasonably common among children, with 10 to 20 percent sleepwalking on occasion. However, a small number of children sleepwalk several nights a week.
The disorder is more common among boys and peaks in children aged 6 to 12. It is also believed to run in families.
Sleepwalking usually occurs during deep non-REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, either early in the night or before waking.
Sleepwalkers may display several characteristics such as:
- They are hard to wake
- Their eyes may be open but they may looked dazed and be unaware of their surroundings or those around them
- They may sit up in bed and then wander around the room
- They may also use incoherent speech
- They may do repetitive things like switching on an off lights, or opening and closing a door
- They don't remember sleepwalking
What can be done?
Treatment is not common unless there is a severe problem with sleepwalking and the child is in danger.
There is no consensus in the medical profession about what to do about sleepwalking, but most efforts are directed at keeping the child safe while sleepwalking. The following tips may help:
- Improve a child's sleeping patterns. Ensure they go to bed at the same time each night and wake at about the same time.
- Minimise stress and anxiety because this can trigger sleepwalking.
- Keep the house safe; keep doors locked, block off stairways, or have the child sleep downstairs. Do not let a sleepwalker sleep in a top bunk.
- There is no medical consensus on whether to wake a sleepwalking child, but gently directing them back to bed is advisable. Do not yell at your child or shake them awake while sleepwalking because this can scare them.
- Make sure your child uses the toilet before bed, and try to limit liquids before bedtime.
Most children grow out of sleepwalking by adolescence.
Talk to your doctor if you are concerned about your child's sleeping patterns. For persistent problems, local sleep clinics may be able to provide suitable treatment.
You should seek medical advice if sleepwalking is combined with other problems, if it becomes a persistent problem, or if an adult sleepwalker begins dangerous activities such as driving while "sleepwalking."