Sleepwalking is one of many common sleep disorders diagnosed today. In fact, sleepwalking is the second most common sleep disorder diagnosed in young children, second only to nightmares. Understandably, seeing your child walking around in the middle of the night seemingly awake can be quite scary for parents. However, sleepwalking is oftentimes a harmless habit that most children outgrow as a part of normal development.
The Stages of Sleep
Sleepwalking, medically referred to as somnambulism, is a behavioral disorder that causes a child to walk, talk or perform other activities while still asleep. According to the National Sleep Foundation, sleepwalking affects about 15% of the population, and is especially common in young children. In fact, children between the ages of 3 and 11 are most at risk for the disorder. Children with sleep apnea have an even higher risk, possibly because sleepwalking occurs during the deepest phase of sleep, when your mind is most active. Sleep apnea is a condition that causes pauses in breathing, which can interfere with this cycle of sleep. Although scientists aren’t sure yet what causes sleepwalking in children, many believe that sleep apnea, sleep deprivation and normal developmental changes may interfere with the normal sleep cycle, resulting in a sleepwalking disorder.
Signs and Symptoms
The most obvious sign that your child has a problem with sleepwalking is finding your child walking around at night in a dazed and confused state. However, sleepwalking can cause other symptoms as well, such as:
- Talking while asleep
- Little or no remembrance of the nighttime event
- Difficulty waking up during the event
- Inappropriate behavior, like urinating in unusual areas
- Violent behavior when someone tries to wake you
- Opening eyes while still asleep
- Confusion and disorientation upon awakening
Although these symptoms can occur in anyone with a sleepwalking disorder, they are especially common in children. This can be quite disturbing for the parents of a sleepwalking child, but it is important to remember that children often outgrow sleep disorders by the time they are in their teens.
Causes and Risk Factors
As mentioned before, children with sleep apnea have an increased risk for developing a sleep disorder like sleepwalking. However, the most common cause of sleepwalking is sleep deprivation, which is quite common in young children. Anxiety and fatigue are also common causes of sleep disorders in children. Your child is also more likely to sleepwalk if they are sleeping in unfamiliar surroundings. Some medications, such as those used for attention deficit disorder, can cause vivid dreams and sleepwalking. Genetics also seems to play a role. However, in many cases, getting a good night’s sleep seems to remedy the problem. In addition, most children outgrow sleepwalking and other sleep disorders during the late adolescent years as a part of normal growth.
Sleepwalking and Safety
Most often, sleepwalking is just a minor nuisance. However, some children may sleepwalk for long distances or put themselves in danger in other ways. Your child could wander outside or do harm without knowledge of the incident. For this reason, it is best to seek advice from your child’s pediatrician if your child experiences frequent bouts of sleepwalking, or if waking at night causes daytime sleepiness and drowsiness. In these cases, treatment may be critical to preventing injury. For many children, simply changing the environment is helpful, such as the following:
- Establish a bedtime routine that helps your child relax
- Avoid caffeinated beverages near bedtime that can interrupt normal sleep patterns
- Limit TV time to reduce stimulation that can cause sleep disturbances
- Create a safe sleeping environment by removing sharp objects and breakable items from your child’s bedroom.
With some simple changes, you can make a safe sleeping environment for your child. However, if you are concerned that your child’s sleepwalking problem may be a more serious condition, talk to your child’s pediatrician about possible causes and solutions.