Sleepwalking: Understanding this Common Childhood Sleep Disorder
The evening dishes have been tidied, the kids have been in bed for over an hour, and you’ve settled in for a relaxing night of reading. Your quiet repose is suddenly disturbed by the vision of your four-year-old wandering into the living room, wide-eyed and anxious, apparently looking for something. When you call out his name you get no response. When you ask him what he’s looking for, he begins to mumble incoherently, “Can’t find my dog . . . can’t find my dog.” Welcome to the world of sleepwalking.
Sleepwalking—or somnambulism—is one of the most common sleep disorders. We’ve all seen the headlines in tabloids: “Woman wakes up in grocery store, disoriented and confused.” “Man drives across state line and remembers nothing. Says he was sleepwalking.” It is a phenomenon that both intrigues us and puzzles us, particularly when it involves our own children.
Dr. Richard Ferber, an expert at The Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Children’s Hospital in Boston, and author of Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems, says, “While sleep talking is so common that it can hardly be considered ‘abnormal,’ sleepwalking has always been one of the most curious sleep disorders.”
To Sleep, Perchance to Dream
Sleep cycles can essentially be broken down into two major stages. The stage most people have heard about is REM sleep or Rapid Eye Movement, the sleep phase in which we dream. In 1953, sleep researchers Dr. Nathaniel Kleitman and his graduate student Eugene Aserinsky at the University of Chicago were surprised to discover that the people they studied while asleep experienced periods of rapid eye movement. When the researchers roused people during this period, dreaming was reported. The discovery of REM sleep indicated that there was some order to sleep—regular phases common to everyone.
Contrary to popular belief, people who talk and walk in their sleep are not “acting out” their dreams. V. Mark Durand, author of Sleep Better! A Guide to Improving Sleep for Children with Special Needs points out that during REM sleep you are unable to sit up, walk, or scream. Have you ever had a dream where you were unable to run or to call out for help? “These are common dream experiences because they correspond to the body’s inability to move during this time,” he reports. Although the brain is very active, the body is, for the most part, in a state of total relaxation.
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