Sleepwalking: Midnight’s children

Are your child’s nightly strolls keeping you up? Aanchal Agarwal tells you how to handle your little sleepwalker with ease


Walking in your slumber

How would you react if you saw your child, who you tucked in bed a while ago, walking out of his room, still deep asleep? Any parent seeing this for the first time is bound to be scared. If this behaviour is new to parents, they could take some time to realise that it might not be a worrying situation and could be easily managed.

Sleepwalking, also called somnambulism, is a type of sleep disorder that involves abnormal movements, in which a person walks in his sleep. It generally begins during childhood and stops at adolescence. However, in a few cases, this may continue to happen in adulthood too. Sleepwalking may entail more than just ‘walking’ in your sleep. From walking around the house asleep, to venturing out of the house, to peeing in cupboards—sleepwalkers have done it all. Most sleepwalkers show a repetitive pattern—they do the same things again and again, like catching an imaginary object or opening the door and standing for a few minutes. A sleepwalking child may even throw a tantrum without any reason. Some sleepwalkers even make and eat sandwiches in their sleep and get back to bed remembering nothing the next morning!

Sleepwalking generally happens in the 3rd to 4th stages of the sleep cycle, when the person is deep asleep. It usually occurs within an hour or two of falling asleep.

Is he awake or not?

How would you know if your child who has got up walking from his bed is just sleepy, in deep slumber or simply faking sleepwalking? Here are a few signs that prove that the person is sleepwalking:

  • He will have glassy eyes and may simply stare and not respond to people or situations around
  • He may not be able to make eye-contact
  • He may be very clumsy and stumble into objects
  • He may behave in a way he usually doesn’t when awake
  • He may talk incoherently and inaudibly
  • He may make odd faces and gestures.

Causes of sleepwalking

Often sleepwalking runs in families. Children of sleepwalking parents are at a higher risk than others. Sometimes people do more in their sleep when they are intoxicated, stressed, drugged or simply sleep deprived. In adulthood, sleepwalking may also be seen in those people who suffer from severe GERD [gastroesophageal reflux disorder], night-time breathing difficulties, night-time convulsions, irregular heart functions or psychotic disorders. Some researchers have found that an immature central nervous system could be one of the reasons behind sleepwalking as well.

Fact of the matter

Sleepwalking peaks between the ages of 10 and 12
Source: American Sleep Association

Consequences of sleepwalking

Depending on what the person does, sleepwalking can either be totally harmless or very dangerous. If your child simply gets up and walks around for a few minutes before going back to bed, it may be harmless, unless he steps out of the house or has a fall. Some sleepwalkers display aggressive behaviour and may end up harming themselves or others. Odd behaviours associated with sleepwalking can cause a great deal of embarrassment—refrain from ridiculing your child about them.

Also, remember that sleepwalking doesn’t cause brain damage or lower your child’s IQ or make him ‘mad’.

Keeping your child safe

  • Lock the doors and windows
  • Keep knives and scissors locked away at nights
  • Remove any obstacles on the floor to prevent a fall
  • If possible, cover the sleepwalking path with carpet
  • Put safety nets on the staircase
  • Keep the car keys out of reach at night
  • Make sure that he doesn’t sleep on the top bunk of a bunk bed.

Helping a sleepwalker

Unless the sleepwalking episodes are too frequent and disruptive, you don’t have to be concerned. However, if it worries you, consult a doctor. Other ways to help are:

  • Scheduled sleep: Awaken your child every few hours to prevent him from drifting into the deep phase of sleep
  • Aided sleep: Drugs to enable prolonged hours of sleep without disruption are a possible option for you to consider
  • Comfortable sleep: Make sure that your child is well-fed and has calmed down before he hits the sack. Avoid watching television or playing on-screen games till late night to prevent over-activity. Minimise your child’s water intake after dinner to avoid frequent bathroom visits. Ensure that his room is free of noise and not hot or stuffy. Comfortable clothing and regular cleaning of mattresses may help him considerably to get a good night’s sleep
  • De-stress: Yoga and meditation is known to help sleepwalkers.

Dealing with a sleepwalker

  • Avoid nagging your child about his unusual behaviour and giving him countless reasons as to why you think his behaviour is disturbed—it will only add to his anxiety.
  • Do not panic when you see your child sleepwalking. Do not try to wake him up, as a sudden jolt might frighten him [and you]. Gently nudge him back to bed.
  • Your child won’t know that he walks in his sleep unless you tell him. Do not to frighten and embarrass him by talking about his sleepwalking insensitively. Tell him gently and do not try to prove it to him if he doesn’t believe you, by taking videos of him, for instance.

With these tips you can now effectively deal with your little one’s night-time walks.

 This was first published in the September 2014 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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Aanchal Agrawal
Aanchal Agrawal is a mother, a psychotherapist, and a special educator. She is a gold medallist in psychology from Benaras Hindu University. She is interested in removing taboos regarding mental illness and aims to spread awareness about child development.


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