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Sleepwalking in Children

Jill Reed Siroty
June 23, 2015

Why does it happen, and how do you keep a sleepwalking child safe?

You've wrapped up for the evening and are settling in to watch a movie with your husband when your son wanders into the room. He went to bed a few hours ago, and when you ask him what's wrong, he doesn't answer. He is just staring off at nothing.

Sleepwalking can look scary to parents, but it's fairly common. Many children will walk in their sleep, and the Mayo Clinic reports that most will usually outgrow it by their teenage years. Sometimes, the child won't actually leave the bed but will just sit up and appear confused. Trying to ask children in the morning about these incidents usually won't produce any insight because they won't remember the episodes.

According to Dr. Lewis Milrod, a neurologist and medical director of pediatric sleep medicine at The Children's Hospital at St. Peter's University Hospital in New Brunswick, N.J., although walking in one's sleep is considered a sleep disorder, it's relatively common. Unless it happens repeatedly, it probably won't require medical intervention.

"The good thing is that it's somewhat predictable," says Dr. Milrod. "It usually happens within the first two hours of a child falling asleep." That's reassuring for parents, because with younger children, parents are often still awake at that point. Dr. Anne Millard, a family practice physician in Glasgow, Mont., suggests consulting a doctor if it's ongoing and occurs frequently -- more than a few times a week for several months.

If you don't catch your child in the act but are suspicious, look for signs, such as your child waking up outside of the bedroom in another place or if you find items that aren't where they belong. If you think your child may be getting out of bed at night, Dr. Millard makes these suggestions:

  • Place a baby gate in the doorway to your child's bedroom. This will keep her in her room, or she may make enough noise trying to move the gate that you'll catch her in the act.
  • If you're very concerned, purchase a tab alarm. This alarm clips to your child's pajamas and will activate when he gets out of bed.
  • Put chimes or alarms on interior doors. The most important thing is to keep the child safe. "Most of the time, children don't get hurt when they sleepwalk," says Dr. Milrod, "Because they are semi-aware, but not conscious, they can do things like walk down the stairs."

To make sure your child stays safe, Dr. Milrod recommends:

  • Try not to disturb a child while she is sleepwalking. If you can, guide her back to bed, where she can go back to sleep.
  • Make sure you have safety locks on all doors and windows leading outside, so your child can't leave the house while sleepwalking.
  • Be "on guard" during the first few hours after he's gone to bed. This is when sleepwalking is most likely to happen.
  • If you find your child downstairs, install baby gates at the top of the stairs, to keep her on the bedroom level.

Dr. Millard also stresses that children who are known to sleepwalk should not sleep in a top bunk. Also, make sure floors are clear so children won't trip over toys, loose rugs or other items.

Why does sleepwalking occur? It's often a result of sleep deprivation, say the doctors, and happens more when a child is sick or has a fever. Dr. Millard suggests keeping kids with this tendency on a regular sleep schedule. Also limit their activity level during the hour before bedtime, sticking to quiet reading, for example.

According to The National Sleep Foundation, sleepwalking is more common among children with sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea, so if it occurs repeatedly, it's probably worth checking in with your pediatrician to see if further investigation is needed. In the meantime, by being alert and taking a few safety precautions, you can keep your child from getting hurt until he outgrows this curious habit.

For more about sleep, read about sleep apnea in children.

Jill Reed Siroty is a freelance writer who writes on a variety of health care and parenting topics. She is mom to two boys and author of a lifestyle blog.

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