Children Who Sleepwalk. What Parents Need To Know.
Imagine waking up in the middle of the night to the sound of your television turning on, something crashing to the ground and your front door opening.
You walk hesitantly out of the bedroom to find it’s not an intruder, but something that may find even more worrisome: Your child is sleepwalking.
Children walking in their sleep is not uncommon. Twenty to 25% of children may sleepwalk at least once in their lifetime. Hilary Pearson, M.D., a pediatric sleep specialist and medical director of Cook Children’s Sleep Center, sees about 10 kids per month that sleepwalk.
With her expertise on the subject, we met with Dr. Pearson to learn more about sleepwalking, including the causes, what to do when it happens, when to worry, and myths that are far from true.
Common sleepwalking myths include:
- Waking up a sleep walker will harm them.
- You can’t hurt anyone from trying to wake them up, although waking a sleepwalker may be hard to do Dr. Pearson explains. Waking them up isn’t going to cause any physical harm, but it might prolong the event and make it more dramatic.
- You can kill a sleep walker if you wake them up.
- “I have never been asked this, but I can assure you it is far from true,” Dr. Pearson said.
- Sleep walking only impacts the sleep walker at night.
- This is also not true. The time spent sleepwalking is not true restful sleep, so it can cause issues during the day. Kids can also be nervous about going to sleep if they know they may sleepwalk.
So what is sleepwalking? Sleepwalking is a disorder that occurs during the deepest stage of sleep resulting in walking around or performing “complex” behaviors. These behaviors can range from simply walking around the bedroom, to getting dressed, walking out the front door and even driving. There are several causes, but the most common are insufficient sleep, stress, and inheriting the tendency.
If you see your child sleepwalking it’s important to quietly and calmly direct them back to bed.
“Interacting with the sleepwalker too much can cause more confusion and even make the event last longer,” Dr. Pearson said. “You don’t have to awaken them or “snap them out of it”, but can just guide them back to their bed. “
If it happens occasionally there is no reason to be concerned, Dr. Pearson explains. It’s normal and many of us have sleepwalked at some point. However, if it happens more than twice a week and lasts for a few weeks, or if dangerous behaviors are occurring, further evaluation may be necessary.
Some children have succeeded in getting outside of the home, or injuring themselves during sleepwalking events, both of which can be dangerous. Sometimes sleepwalking is a phase that lasts for a few months to a few years. Other times it is caused by an underlying sleep disorder, so treatment could be helpful.
If the sleepwalking occurs more often, it is recommended that you speak with your pediatrician or family physician. He or she may refer you to see a sleep doctor for further evaluation.
Sleep studies are sometimes recommended to diagnose the causes of sleep walking. These studies allow for doctors to identify things like breathing or movement abnormalities. If a sleep disorder is identified, treatments to resolve it may decrease your sleepwalking. In other cases, analysis of the child’s sleep patterns or stress levels can help with identifying ways to decrease sleepwalking.
Sleep apnea has been reported to occur in up to 40% of children with sleepwalking. Other medical conditions that can contribute to sleepwalking are: restless leg syndrome/periodic limb movement disorder, fevers and even ADHD.
A child’s sleepwalking can simply be due to lack of sleep, poor quality of sleep or can be a sign that the child is coming down with a virus.
“Some families have members that sleepwalk into adulthood,” Dr. Pearson added, “But most will outgrow that behavior during their teenage years.” Keeping sleepwalkers safe is the most important part of the process.
Get to know Hilary Pearson, M.D.
Dr. Pearson is the medical director for the Sleep Center at Cook Children's. She leads six highly trained polysomnography technologists on staff. Dr. Pearson works closely with other Cook Children's specialists and the Sleep Center staff to provide clinical consultation and comprehensive management of pediatric sleep-related disorders.
"I chose to go into pediatric sleep medicine because I enjoy seeing the quality of a child’s life improve even after they’ve had a serious illness," Dr. Pearson said. "Kids are so resilient! Sleep medicine issues can affect healthy children as well as chronically ill patients and I get to help patients with a variety conditions. I love being at Cook Children’s because the focus is on the family, and it’s always better for the child when you can really work together as a team.
"During my time away from work, I like to cook, play with my kids and watch Texas Ranger games!"