It is quite common for people to assume that the majority of sleepwalkers are adults, however, the reverse is the case. The majority of sleepwalkers are young children, especially those between the ages of 4 to 8.
Most times, somnambulism in children is not a big deal, moreover, it doesn’t always persist into adulthood.
It is important to know what to do when someone, especially a child is sleepwalking. Think of the knowledge as another necessary first aid tool, because it is.
Since the term sleepwalking, is pretty common, unlike its medical term, somnambulism, one would expect a lot of people to know the basics of the disorder.
Unfortunately, most persons are not well informed about this disorder, they do not know why it happens and what they should (or shouldn’t do) if they encounter someone sleepwalking.
Table of Content:
What Is Sleepwalking Or Somnambulism In Children?
When we feel tired, we sleep. It’s simple. Sleep is one of the few ways through which our body reenergizes itself. Sleep is restful, but sadly, for a sleepwalker, it isn’t so restful.
When a person who’s asleep performs activities as though he/she is awake, it is called sleepwalking or somnambulism. Sleepwalkers are trapped between a state of deep sleep and wakefulness.
However, somnambulism in children is usually outgrown, although it may continue into adulthood in some children.
There are two major stages of sleep: the non-rapid eye movement stage and the rapid eye movement stage, NREM and REM respectively. The NREM stage is the deep sleep stage, and it is in this stage that sleepwalking happens, usually, one or two hours after your child falls asleep.
Though the term “sleepwalking” suggests that the child has to be walking, this is often not the case. Hence, why somnambulism, the medical term, is considered a more inclusive term because it doesn’t limit the condition to just walking while asleep.
Children (or adults) who sleepwalk appear wakeful but with a blank expression – definitely not like a zombie! Somnambulism in children is a type of partial awakening and it is classified as a parasomnia.
A Parasomnia is a disorder that is marked by the occurrence of abnormal behaviours, movements, or experiences during sleep. Usually, the experience is not remembered upon wakefulness.
Hence, sleepwalkers do not remember anything they might have done during an episode – yes, he doesn’t remember peeing in the bucket.
Other types of parasomnias include night terrors, sleep paralysis, bedwetting, sleep talking, etc.
Things A Sleepwalker May Do
Sleepwalking is a sleep behavioural disorder, it’s similar to sleep talking and night terrors, and quite often linked to bedwetting. Sleepwalkers can perform a wide range of activities that fall within what they’d normally do.
These activities are usually simple tasks. However, in severe cases, especially in adults, more complex tasks can be performed, for example, driving a car.
Sleepwalkers may carry out a bunch of activities like:
- Sitting up in bed
- Getting dressed
- Walking around the house or wandering outside
- Talking or mumbling, although they might not make much sense
- Peeing in inappropriate places, like in a bucket or on the floor
- Clumsy movements or repetitive activities like opening and closing doors
- Rearranging the furniture
- Sexual behaviours (in adults)
- Driving a car, etc.
What Somnambulism In Children And Adults Look Like?
Witnessing a sleepwalking episode for the first time can be weird, and sometimes, identifying an episode is tricky. A mild sleepwalker might come off as a deep sleeper who is awake for a bit. That is, especially if what they do is a trifling task, like get a cup of water, and then return to sleep.
So, what are the tell-tale signs that distinguish a sleepwalker from a very sleepy individual who probably got out of bed to get a cup of water?
- Their eyes are open
- They have a blank expression, and might not respond to you
- Glazed appearance
- Young children often sleep talk as well
- Children sleepwalking are unable to recognize their family or friends
- Difficult to wake up, not that it’s advisable to wake up a sleepwalker
- Movements are usually clumsy – not well coordinated
- Perform repetitive behaviours like rubbing their eyes, bobbing heads etc.
- Happens a few hours after one fall asleep, say one to three hours
- They do not remember the episode the next day
Why Do Children Sleepwalk?
The exact cause of sleepwalking is not known. However, it is as a result of the brain’s inability to properly regulate a person’s sleep and wake cycles.
A few things have been known to trigger sleepwalking. They are:
- Exhaustion, sleep deprivation, poor sleeping habits, or irregular sleep time
- Drugs or medications, like sleeping pills, sedatives, and antihistamines
- Fever or other illnesses
- Being in or moving to a new environment, especially a noisy environment
- Family history of sleepwalking or genetics – some persons are genetically predisposed to experience sleepwalking
- Alcohol – Alcohol consumption at late evenings can mess with a person’s sleep stages, and increase their susceptibility to sleepwalking
- Physical or psychological stress
- Sleeping with a full bladder, this explains why it is often linked with bedwetting and why most children who sleepwalk often pee in inappropriate places.
When Should You Call the Doctor?
- Self-harm: If your child harms themselves during an episode, then you should call their paediatrician
- If your child has more than 2 episodes in a week
- When the child passes the age of puberty – though this might turn out to be nothing, it is always better you have it checked out.
- When you are worried.
Are There Any Dangers Or Underlying Causes Of Sleepwalking In Children?
Sleepwalking is a common phenomenon, and it’s usually nothing to worry about. But sometimes, though rarely, it can be caused by a more serious underlying condition.
When sleepwalking progresses from childhood into adulthood, or when an adult suddenly starts sleepwalking, then there is likely an underlying medical condition.
Underlying medical conditions that can trigger somnambulism in children or adults are:
- Night terrors
- Sleep apnea – This is when we stop breathing during sleep, it is an unconscious act and also a trigger.
- Restless leg syndrome – This syndrome involves an overpowering urge to move one’s legs while asleep, this can, however, trigger an episode of sleepwalking.
- Migraines or brain injuries like encephalitis
How Do Doctors Diagnose And Treat Somnambulism In Children?
In diagnosing a case of somnambulism, medical practitioners often do the following:
- A physical examination to rule out other conditions like nighttime seizures, sleep apnea, and other related sleep disorders.
- Discuss your symptoms with those who’ve seen you sleepwalking – remember, a sleepwalker is unaware that they sleepwalk, even after they wake
- Conduct a nocturnal sleep study in a special lab known as a sleep lab.
The treatment option to be employed depends on the likely cause of your child’s sleepwalking.
For those caused as a result of sleeping patterns and sleep quality, improving the quality of sleep by sticking to a regular sleep schedule is recommended. If caused by an underlying medical condition, then the condition is treated for.
Caused by medications? Then switching to another medication might resolve the issue.
Medications, self-hypnosis, and therapy are also often used to improve sleep quality, reduce stress, and achieve a proper state of relaxation that do not involve unwanted movements during sleep.
How You Can Help A Child (or an Adult) Who Sleepwalks
Do not wake them up during the episode
During an episode, never attempt to wake up the child. Waking a sleepwalking child can make him aggressive, especially if you wake the child by making physical contact.
Do not shake or grab the child fiercely. If you shake them fiercely, your action might be interpreted as an attack, hence their need to get aggressive as well. It can also make them disoriented, confused, or agitated.
The reaction by an adult will be more severe than that of children. An adult, if woken up aggressively might get violent.
However, if you must wake the individual, make a not-so-loud noise from a distance. Or you can gently guide them back to their bed, and wait a few minutes till the episode comes to an end.
This technique simply involves monitoring the time a sleepwalking episode begins and then waking up the person right before it starts. Sleepwalking episodes usually occur about two hours after falling asleep and are usually around the same time.
That is, if a person sleeps around 8 pm, and usually sleepwalks around 9:30 pm, then you should wake the person 15 minutes earlier.
However, for those with no fixed bedtime, the best time to wake them will be to determine how long an episode starts after having slept. Do their episodes usually start after 2 hours irrespective of when they slept?
Rule of the thumb: monitor their sleepwalking episodes, then wake them 15 minutes before an episode.
Ensure that they’re in a safe environment
A sleepwalker isn’t fully conscious of their surroundings they are only partially awake. Remove any object that can cause harm to them, especially sharp objects and electrical appliances.
Also, ensure that all doors and windows are closed, to prevent them from going out – keeping the keys hidden will help as well.
If your child sleepwalks, then your child should sleep on a ground-floor bed, not a bunk bed. This will prevent them from falls and injuries.
Say no to sleep deprivation
Get enough good and relaxing sleep and make sure that your child gets it as well. Fatigue and lack of good sleep are common sleepwalking triggers, in both children and adults.
If your child is always feeling tired right before bedtime, then introducing a relaxing activity before bedtime will help. Relaxing activities could be a hot/warm bath, a fun puzzle or game, or even yoga. It should be relaxing and enjoyable for your child.
Also, make the room comfortable, noise-free and conducive for good sleep.
De-stress the right way
Especially helpful for those whose episodes are being triggered by stress. Identifying the reasons why your child is stressed out will help you find the best way to help your child feel relaxed.
There are a lot of healthy ways to de-stress such as breathing techniques or talking to someone.
Don’t make a fuss about an episode
A sleepwalker will never remember their episodes, and it is uncomfortable if you keep talking about it. Just don’t emphasize too much about an episode.
If you sense discomfort when talking about it, then drop it, unless they bring it up. Also, discourage older and younger siblings from teasing the sleepwalking child.
Since most kids who sleepwalk might end up peeing in weird places, it is a nice idea to get their bladder empty, right before bed. However, if they aren’t feeling the urge to go, don’t push it.
Adults are also advised to reduce or eliminate alcohol consumption, especially before bed.
If the symptoms are worrisome, then see a doctor.
Somnambulism in children might be worrisome and awkward, especially for your child, hence why you shouldn’t do or say anything that worsens how they feel about themselves.
It is always preferable to not wake up the sleepwalker but if you must, then you must do so calmly. Moreover, if aggressively woken up, the child might feel scared or confused, and this might lead to the child getting physically aggressive as well.
And if your child’s sleepwalking symptoms bother you, then call a doctor.