The brain goes through five stages of sleep: stages 1, 2, 3, 4, and finally, REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. This progression makes one complete sleep cycle, which lasts for 90 to100 minutes. Sleepwalking occurs in stages 3 and 4, which are the deep stages of sleep. It can last anywhere from few seconds up to half an hour.
Sleepwalking, or “somnambulism,” occurs mostly in children between the ages of 6 and 12. During sleepwalking, a child may sit up in bed with open eyes and a dazed expression, and may get out of bed and start walking. The speech may not be clear and the child may not respond to questions. Sleepwalking occurs mostly in deep sleep, and usually this behavior disappears during the teens.
There are many possible causes of sleepwalking. Children may sleepwalk when tired, or stressed, or not sleeping well overall. Sleepwalking may also happen during times of illness and/or anxiety. Some medications may also cause sleepwalking. In rare cases, sleepwalking may also occur due to an underlying medical problem, such as:
• Restless leg syndrome
• Abnormal breathing during sleep, i.e. sleep apnea
• Brain swelling
• Medications like sleeping pills, antihistamines and antibiotics
• Though there is no explanation why, sleepwalking is more common in boys than girls.
It is important for parents to ensure safety of their sleepwalking child.
Do not wake up a sleepwalker, it will only scare them. Instead, the child should be slowly guided back to bed
A bunk bed should be avoided for a sleepwalking child
All the doors and windows of the house need to be locked securely with child safety locks, to prevent the sleepwalking child from venturing out
Sharp objects, breakable objects, and clutter should be removed
A safety gate should be securely fastened at the top of any stairs
Though it is not an issue for medical concern, sleepwalking should be discussed with the doctor.
There is no specific treatment for sleepwalking. Often no treatment is necessary, as most children will outgrow sleepwalking. For severe cases, a doctor may suggest to track the episodes, and then periodically awaken the child to break up the sleep pattern.
At bedtime, help the child relax by playing soft music, playing a relaxation tape, singing a lullaby, or reading the child’s favorite story. It is important that a fixed sleep routine – a consistent bedtime and naptime – is maintained. Also, the child should not be allowed to drink a lot of fluid before sleeping, and should urinate before bed, as a full bladder can contribute to sleepwalking.