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Help! My Child Is Sleepwalking!

If you are shocked to find your child sleepwalking rest assured that it is fairly common in childhood and not usually anything to worry about. It can be triggered by stress, illness or not enough sleep but with most sleepwalkers it is not a sign that they are psychologically disturbed. There are risks associated with a child wandering around the house whilst asleep as they could fall down the stairs or wander out of the front door. There are precautions that can be put in place which I will discuss later. Sleepwalking is most common in children aged between three and seven years and usually they have grown out of it by the time they reach nine years of age. If the sleepwalking begins at around the age of nine or above it is likely that they will continue to sleepwalk into adulthood. Most children who sleepwalk have parents that did so too. Bedwetting children often sleepwalk. Other symptoms related to sleepwalking are:

•    Sleep-talking
•    Screaming
•    Violent attacks on the person waking them up
•    Strange behaviour like urinating in wardrobes
•    Will not remember sleepwalking

Your child’s sleepwalking episode is most likely to happen when he is in a deep sleep but it can also happen during lighter stages of his sleep or non REM. As well as walking he may just sit straight up in his bed and look around. It is not dangerous to waken your sleepwalker in terms of causing him a heart attack, brain damage or shock but he could inadvertently lash out at you so it is better to gently guide him back to bed. Wise precautions to take if your child is a sleepwalker:

•    Erect stair gates at the top of the stairway or at his bedroom door
•    Do not let him sleep in a bunk-bed
•    Lock all your windows and doors before you go to bed
•    If you find him sleepwalking, gently guide him back to bed

Along with sleepwalking other nocturnal experiences your child may have are nightmares and night terrors. Your child will find it difficult to ascertain what is real and what is not so nightmares can be traumatic for him.

Nightmares are very common in children and can start from two years of age, most commonly occurring around seven years of age. They occur most frequently between 4am and 6am during the REM sleep phase. Your child will probably come to you to be comforted after a nightmare and can usually describe it to you. You may find that he is scared to go back to sleep so calmly explain that he is safe and that his dream is not real. It is his brain processing events and it may be that he is a little stressed about something.  Again bunk-beds are not a great idea if your child has lots of nightmares as he may lose his footing if he is distressed or not fully awake. A bottom bunk can be dark and cave-like so may encourage nightmares.

Night terrors are different to nightmares and normally occur during deep sleep (non REM) and this is usually between 1am and 3am. If your child is experiencing a night terror he is probably rapidly breathing, has a heightened heart rate, is sweating and panicking.  Your child’s pupils will probably be dilated and although his eyes are open he is still asleep. He will be difficult to wake and once he has woken up he will probably not remember the experience but will appear dazed and confused. He may be hard to comfort. Night terrors are common in ages three to five years and often run in families as does sleepwalking and bedwetting. Precautions to take:

•    Stay close to your child during a terror so he does not inflict any harm to himself
•    Avoid bunk-beds
•    Erect stair gates
•    Do not shout or alarm your child in an attempt to wake him, rather turn the light on and speak calmly to him and hold him if he allows you to

Seek help from your doctor if:

•    The terror has a duration of longer than thirty minutes
•    Your child does something dangerous
•    He makes jerky movements, stiffens or drools
•    Your child’s day times are adversely affected

By Eirian Hallinan

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