Growing up, I was always told the story of my parents finding my sister in the front yard, in the middle of the night, completely asleep. Needless to say, I developed a deep fear of sleepwalking, and worried my kids would be sleepwalkers. It's a pretty common occurrence with children, but why do kids sleepwalk? I mean, having them wake up at midnight to stare at you in bed until you wake wasn't scary enough?
Pediatrician and sleep physician Dr. Daniel Erichsen tells Romper that it's all about the period of transition between phases of sleep. "When the child's brain goes into or out of stage-three sleep, it can end up in a mixed state where part of the brain is awake and part of the brain is asleep. It is during this mixed state that bizarre phenomenon like sleepwalking — or its cousins night terrors and confusional arousals — happen."
Transitory periods during sleep can be hard on all of us, but kids seem to be particularly affected, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). This is why you see children with higher instances of night terrors and confusional arousals.
Pediatrician Dr. Leann Poston adds, "During sleep, the brain is supposed to suppress muscular activity using the neurotransmitter GABA. In a child's developing brain, sometimes the suppression is incomplete." And, in the land of No Surprise To Me, she says, "Sleepwalking tends to run in families, which indicates a genetic component to the disorder. Some medications, fever, stress, and sleep deprivation can increase the incidence of sleepwalking."
"Although sleepwalking and other non-REM parasomnias are not harmful, they can be very disruptive," Erichsen emphasizes. But he says that something called an "anticipatory awakening" can be helpful. "Wake the child up before the sleepwalking occurs for a week or two, and you often see that somnambulism resolves." He says researchers don't know the exact mechanism, but somehow jolting the brain out of the pattern that caused sleepwalking is why anticipatory awakenings work.
But if your kid is still snoozing upright and trying to make it to the kitchen, Posner has some advice. "In addition to ensuring the room and household is safe for a sleepwalking child, change the bedtime by 10 minutes in either direction of the usual bedtime," she says. "At one point, there was a study that indicated that sleepwalking may occur when one sleep cycle 'crashed' into the next. Changing the bedtime by small increments at a time may help determine the ideal sleep cycle length for a child."
While most of the treatments are pretty straight forward — like waking your child or altering sleep times — Dr. Stephen Gamss, child and adolescent psychiatrist, tells Romper, "In extreme situations where there is no clear underlying cause, and sleepwalking happens with increased frequency, medication may be considered to directly affect sleep patterns." But he says this may only be required for a brief period of time as the conditions for sleepwalking are "generally related to changing brain patterns in a growing child that frequently correct themselves when that phase of development ends."
So in short: be cautious, engage your alarm system, make your home safe, and talk to your pediatrician. And maybe don't watch a scary movie before bedtime.
Dr. Daniel Erichsen, pediatrician and sleep physician
Dr. Leann Poston, pediatrician
Dr. Stephen Gamss, child and adolescent psychiatrist