Ask Dr. Marla: Sleepwalking

By Dr. Marla Shapiro on April 30, 2009
Q: My seven-year-old daughter recently started walking in her sleep. Just a few minutes after she goes to bed she wakes up and runs around the house crying and speaking words we can’t understand. Apparently things are fine at school. This happens at least twice a week and I fear the worst. We try to share our attention between her and her 18-month-old sister and hope she is not feeling left out in some way. Why is this happening? – JULIE R., MISSISSAUGA, ON

Sleep disorders are common in children between the ages of two and 18. Sleepwalking is an arousal from deep or ‘slow-wave’ sleep. It is one kind of sleep disorder that can also include nightmares and night terrors. According to the Hospital for Sick Children (HSC) in Toronto, it may appear that the child is stuck between being asleep (will have no memory of the event) and being awake (can perform physical activities).
If you attempt to speak to children during this time, they may appear non responsive. They might even attempt to push you away. Generally, it is best to guide them back in a quiet, gentle manner to their bed. The good news is that most children will outgrow this behaviour.
While you are right that sleepwalking can be a symptom of distress, or perhaps not having a routine sleep pattern, often there are no obvious reasons for sleepwalking. Some studies show that sleepwalking can run in families.
Talk to you doctor. Your doctor will do a complete physical examination. It’s important to exclude any possible underlying illness, medications that might be affecting your child or sleep deprivation. Your doctor will want to exclude any possible neurological disease such as a seizure disorder, which again, is unlikely.
Although you cannot prevent sleepwalking from occurring, HSC points out that you can make a few changes to your child’s daily routine to decrease the chances of an occurrence.
● Ensure your child goes to bed and wakes up at the same times every day.
● Create a comfortable sleep environment.
● Eliminate caffeinated foods and beverages.
● Ensure gates are installed near staircases.
● Keep objects that might cause injury off the fl oor and out of your child’s room.
● Ensure your child is not disturbed by noises such as loud televisions, music or conversation.
Most children outgrow sleepwalking and treatment is usually not required. If, however, the sleep walking increases, or your child is tired and irritable during waking hours, it is a good idea to see your physician and discuss assessment and management.

Published in Spring 2009



By Dr. Marla Shapiro| April 30, 2009

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