When children sleepwalk

Is your child a regular little sleepwalker? We shed some light on this common and sometimes dangerous sleep disorder.

In the middle of a blustery winter’s night, a four-year-old Norwegian girl walks 5km from her home to a nearby town in nothing but her underwear and a pair of thin boots. When police discover her, she’s confused and has no memory of walking there. All she remembers is dreaming that her house was on fire…

This story, as reported by BBC.com in September 2014, is just one example of what can happen when a child sleepwalks. While this little girl emerged unscathed, sleepwalking can, however, be risky. What would have happened if she wasn’t found in time?

If you’re concerned about a sleepwalking child, this article is for you. The good news, though, is that sleepwalking is mostly harmless.

What, exactly, is sleepwalking?
Sleepwalking (somnambulism) causes a person to walk or perform complex activities in a semi-automatic way while asleep.

Somnambulism generally occurs during the deep, non-REM stages of sleep, early in the night. This sleep stage is in contrast with REM sleep, when dreams are most vivid and eyes move rapidly, says the US National Institutes of Health.

“Sleepwalking takes place when the person moves from deep sleep to less deep sleep,” adds Sandy Hoffman, a registered counselling psychologist from South Africa. “There’s an apparent wakening, but the person remains in a subconscious state. Even if the person talks, such talking will happen slowly, eyes will be glazed, and the person will not remember the interaction when fully awake.”

A sleepwalking episode can last from a few seconds or minutes, to 30 minutes or longer. While sleepwalking in itself isn’t dangerous, sleepwalkers can inadvertently injure themselves.

Who is affected?
Mostly children are affected by this sleep disorder.

For some people, sleepwalking is an inherited condition (chances are increased where an immediate family member is a sleepwalker), and it may be related to a certain stage of development in children, says Australia’s Sleep Health Foundation.

“It’s estimated that about 10% of children between the ages of three and ten sleepwalk, with incidence shown to be most common at five years of age,” says Hoffman.

Sleepwalking usually ends in adolescence, but some people may carry on throughout their lives, according to Australia’s Sleep Health Foundation. The longer it carries on during one’s teen years, the greater the chance it will continue in adulthood.

What causes sleepwalking?
Although nobody knows exactly what causes sleepwalking, experts know that it’s sometimes linked to the medical or emotional health of the individual.

According to Hoffman, medical conditions that may play a role in sleepwalking include:

• Sleep apnoea (a serious sleep disorder where breathing repeatedly stops and starts)
• Restless leg syndrome (a condition characterised by a compelling urge to move your legs and which may           interfere with sleep)
• Periodic limb movement disorder (involuntary limb movement during sleep)
• Seizures (when nerve cell activity in the brain is disturbed)

In children, lack of sleep, fatigue, irregular sleep schedules, illness, fever and certain medications may contribute to sleepwalking.

Emotional trauma and anxiety are also often linked to sleepwalking. In children, for example, pent-up emotions can have an effect on sleep and dream patterns.

“Children are seldom naturally aware that all emotion is important, logical and worthy of discussion. Even if they are, the child doesn’t know how to articulate emotion,” says Hoffman. “Sometimes, even if the child could discuss their fears, adults aren’t open to seeing the distress behind the behaviour… In this vacuum, children often feel that their fears are an indication of their own shame, and so they hide it.

“When they’re asleep and their defences against ‘hidden’ parts fall away, this ‘shame’ can arise as night terrors. Sleepwalking can be the only method available to the child of ‘getting away’ from night terrors.”

About a third of children who experience night terrors – episodes of incomplete awakening with extreme anxiety – also sleepwalk.

Tips for parents of sleepwalkers
If your child sleepwalks, it’s important to prevent them from hurting themselves. Hoffman shares the following tips:

• Prepare the child’s bedroom on the ground floor.
• Hang heavy but soft curtains on windows.
• Make the bed on the floor.
• Remove sharp objects from around the home.
• Secure windows and doors to prevent the child from falling out or walking into the street.

It’s important to involve the child in the measures put in place. Also try to find a way for the child to get your attention and help when they are awake during the night – use a bell or a buzzer, for example. This will help the child feel more secure.

When to seek professional help
If you’re not sure how to handle your child’s sleepwalking, or if your child seems difficult, it’s best to consult a professional.

Take all relevant information about incidents of sleepwalking along to a medical doctor and/or a family therapist, advises Hoffman.