Ever wake up to a noise, only to discover your child walking around in their sleep? This can be scary, but try not to worry too much! Sleepwalking is a common occurrence among children. Recent studies suggest that nearly a third of all children will experience sleepwalking at some point.
While most kids wake up with no idea they’ve been sleepwalking, it can be confusing and stressful for parents to witness. It doesn’t help that there are cultural myths and stereotypes clouding the issue.
To set the record straight, we’ll lay out some of the basic facts about sleepwalking.
What is sleepwalking?
It might seem like a simple question, but there are certain symptoms of sleepwalking (aka somnambulism) that set it apart from other sleep conditions. Sleepwalking occurs when a person leaves their bed and moves around without waking up. While sleepwalking, your child might do daily things, like eating or getting dressed, or bizarre things like moving furniture or staring at nothing. It may seem at first like your child is awake. If they’re sleepwalking, their face will be completely blank, and they likely won’t respond to any communication. Sleepwalking typically lasts between 15 minutes to an hour, and your child probably won’t remember any of it.
Why does sleepwalking happen?
There’s no simple cause of sleepwalking, but scientists are starting to understand it better. During the REM (rapid eye movement) stage of sleep, your body is basically paralyzed to prevent you from acting out your dreams. This sounds a lot scarier than it actually is!
Sleepwalking happens at a different stage, when there’s very little activity in the brain, but just enough to allow your body to move around. It’s generally believed that sleepwalking is caused by a trigger that pulls you out of deep sleep but not quite into full consciousness. It tends to happen within 3-4 hours of a child falling asleep.
What Can Trigger Sleepwalking?
Although these things don’t directly cause sleepwalking, they may contribute to it. Common triggers include:
- Sleep deprivation
- Bloated stomach
- Travel or unfamiliar surroundings
- A lot of noise or light
- A fever
If your child has been sleepwalking a lot lately, make sure none of these factors have become out of control. Check the lights in their room and try to reduce eating before bed. Look for what may be stressing them out (like too many extracurricular activities) and see if you can help your child take a break to relax more.
If this problem happens in your family, take comfort in the fact that it should go away over time. Children between the ages of 5 and 12 are most susceptible to sleepwalking, and the majority simply outgrow their symptoms as they get older. Talk to your pediatrician if your child is engaging in riskier activities while sleepwalking, like using stairs, going outside, or opening windows. Excessive snoring should also be brought up.
Should You Wake Up Your Sleepwalking Child?
Waking up from sleepwalking is usually disorienting and often frightening, especially for children. The best bet is to gently guide your child back to bed, where they will likely fall back asleep and wake up none the wiser.
Are Night Terrors Related to Sleepwalking?
While they have distinct manifestations, new research suggests that sleepwalking and night terrors may be different symptoms of the same condition. Children who experience night terrors are more likely to experience sleepwalking later in childhood, and the two conditions share many characteristics: they occur during the same sleep stage, and the triggers that can affect them are largely the same.