5 Things to Do When Your Child Sleepwalks

A sleepwalking child may traverse stairs, step over toys, and carry on complete (if nonsensical) conversations. But although his eyes are open, he's completely unaware of what's going on -- so how are you supposed to deal?

Sleepwalking is a parasomnia, a disorder of "partial arousal" that occurs in the deepest stage of sleep, says W. David Brown, PhD, DABSM, CBSM, a sleep psychologist at Children's Medical Center in Dallas. Surprisingly, while it's considered a disorder for adults, "it's normal in childhood," he says. "In fact, some children may start sleepwalking as soon as they're able to walk."

Luckily, most kids outgrow sleepwalking by the teenage years, Brown says. But until that happens, here's what you should (and shouldn't) do to cope.

  1. Keep your child safe. No matter how awake sleepwalkers look, they can fall down stairs and trip over furniture. "Keep toys picked up and put a gate across stairs," Brown says. Placing a bell on your child's bedroom door will alert you when they've left their room, and Brown even suggests putting a high bolt on doors so kids can't leave the house. "Sleepwalking can be dangerous," he says. "I knew one young girl who would leave her home and walk down the middle of the street."
  2. Increase your child's sleep time. "In young children, even 30 minutes of extra sleep each night can decrease the occurrence of sleep walking," Brown says. The reason? Sleep deprivation increases Stage 3 sleep, when sleepwalking happens. If you do keep your kiddo up late one night for a special event, be aware that they're likely to sleepwalk the following night. "That's because when kids get sleep-deprived, Stage 3 sleep rebounds when they sleep normally again," explains Brown.
  3. Gently put your child back to bed. Stay calm and quiet and send your child back to bed, suggests Brown. Even if they appear upset, they'll likely have no recollection of this event in the morning. That said, if you're concerned about the frequency of your child's sleepwalking, talk with your pediatrician or a sleep expert.

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  4. Don't try to wake your child. You won't hurt a sleepwalker if you try to wake them, Brown clarifies. But because sleepwalkers are often difficult to rouse, they may feel a sense of threat toward the person who's trying to wake them. (That would be you.) Skip the drama for you both and let them keep snoozing.
  5. Or ... wake them on a schedule. If your child's sleepwalking is happening just about every night, you can try "scheduled awakenings" to stop them. You'll need to know what time of night the events occur, then wake up your child right beforehand. "For example, if your child typically sleepwalks between midnight and 1 a.m., you can briefly awaken your child right before midnight," Brown says. Your child doesn't have to fully wake, just respond to you, even for a few seconds. (And yes, being annoyed qualifies as a response.) Try this every night until you get a full week without sleepwalking, then shift to waking your child every other night. "If the sleepwalking doesn't return, you can stop the awakenings," says Brown.

Has your child ever walked in his sleep?

Image © iStock.com/aphrodite74

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