Sleepwalking: Understanding this Common Childhood Sleep Disorder
“The near paralysis which occurs during REM sleep prevents us from acting out our dreams,” says Dr. Ferber. Non-REM sleep, on the other hand, is comprised of both light and deep stages, with the deeper stage typically occurring in the first few hours after falling asleep. Sleepwalking and sleep talking episodes tend to occur during this phase, usually about one to two hours after children have fallen asleep.
According to the National Academy of Childhood Sleep Disorders, about 18 percent of children in the United States are prone to sleepwalking. It is most commonly seen in children ages of six to twelve, and episodes can vary in frequency and intensity. Sleepwalking and sleep talking are not considered serious sleep disorders but do tend to run in families. If you or your spouse has a history of sleepwalking, chances are higher that your child may experience one or more episodes.
My older brother still delights in recounting the night he was babysitting my younger brother and me. He glanced up from the television to see me headed for the front door with my sleepy brother in tow. In my own sleepwalking state I had attempted to involve my sibling, a compliant five-year-old boy who apparently did not need much encouragement. Fortunately the vigilant babysitter stopped us before we headed outside and was able to gently coerce us back into our respective beds without any incident. Although my own children never experienced any major episodes of sleepwalking, my niece once wakened her mother in a hotel room, scratching on the outside of the door to get back into the room. She had somehow managed to sleepwalk her way into the hotel hallway without my sister hearing her leave.
Prevention and Treatment
So what should you do if your child demonstrates nighttime waking? For calm sleepwalkers, the best response is to talk quietly and calmly, and gently lead your child back to bed.
“During the event, it’s usually best just to allow it to run its course,” says Dr. Ferber. “The only job a parent really has is to make sure the child doesn’t do anything injurious.” For children who become quite agitated it’s best to keep your distance, encouraging a return to bed when he calms down. “Generally, when this is going on, children do not like to be held or restrained. They don’t recognize you.”
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry recommends that parents develop consistent and regular bedtime and sleep routines for children. These routines help minimize common sleep problems. Dr. Ferber agrees that ensuring adequate amounts of nighttime sleep may be the most important method of treating the issue for children younger than six. He points out that an overtired child is more likely to sleepwalk, “A sleep-deprived child has a greater need for deep sleep. This need may prevent the deep sleep system from giving way at the end of the first or second sleep cycle, and a mixed state of partial waking may occur.”
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