Sleepwalking in Kids

It is common and curable

by Jennifer Molk

We all dream of the night our babies sleep through the night, all tucked tight and safe in their beds. But with that milestone comes other challenges, like what happens when they are able to walk, or more specifically sleepwalk.

Sleepwalking in children is more common than you might think. Thomas Thigpen, medical director with St. Vincent Healthcare Sleep Center who specializes in sleep medicine, says sleepwalking can become a regular activity anytime after walking starts.

“Sleepwalking is not normal but is relatively common, with up to 16 percent of children sleepwalking in some reports,” he warns. “So it is common.”

Most children however outgrow sleepwalking by the time they are teens. “Approximately one percent of children who sleepwalk will sleepwalk as adults,” Thigpen says.

Having a child who sleepwalks on any level can be unnerving for parents. “Most cases begin between four and eight years of age,” Thigpen says.

Sleepwalking is a disorder, also called somnambulism that reaches far beyond the physical act of walking in a trance while asleep. It is the subsequent behaviors while in that trance that can lead to danger, and can range from harmless to harmful to simply inappropriate or embarrassing.

Harmless sleepwalking behavior

Sitting up

Talking dazedly

Being hard to wake up

Harmful sleepwalking behavior

Wandering around alone outside

Being clumsy

Not being able to snap out of a trance if

danger looms

Inappropriate sleepwalking behavior

Opening a closet door and urinating

Why we sleepwalk

During the night, children are more inclined to sleepwalk within an hour or two of falling asleep. Sleepwalking episodes can last from as little as a few seconds until up to 30 minutes.

The reasons for sleepwalking in children vary widely. While Thigpen says genetics may play a role, or if the child experiences sleep apnea, fortunately some other reasons may be within a parent’s control.

Insufficient or irregular sleep schedule

Emotional upheaval, for example the transition from grade school to middle school.

Bedwetting or the need to urinate

Illness or fever, or side effects to certain medications


Night terrors

What to do

Thomas Thigpen of St. Vincent Healthcare Sleep Center says there are measures parents can take to help their weary wanderers understand and deal with sleepwalking and its implications or dangers:

Maintain a regular sleep schedule

Allow sufficient time to sleep

Identify any underlying sleep disorder, such as sleep apnea

Limit fluids late in the evening and empty the bladder immediately prior to bedtime

Think safety immediately. “Potential injury is the only real concern” of sleepwalking, says Thigpen.

Keep doors and windows shut tight; consider installing an alarm system

Guard the stairs with a childproof locking gate

Consider installing locks on windows

Lead your child gently back to bed, trying not to wake him

See a doctor if you feel it is necessary. Sleepwalking can be treated with medication if episodes are significant and occur regularly

Behavioral therapy such as hypnotherapy can be tried in an older child

Things to keep in mind

Children typically sleepwalk with their eyes open, but they will not see the way they do when they are awake. Their perception is distorted, such as they will believe rooms are not what they are during their waking hours, hence potentially urinating in a closet.

Sleepwalking is not likely to be a sign that something is emotionally or psychologically wrong with your child.

Sleepwalkers likely will not remember even climbing out of bed, no matter where they end up.

As always, design your child’s bedroom to be quiet, cozy and provide a safe environment in which they can fully relax.

And remember not to reprimand your sleepwalker in any way. SFM

Jennifer Molk is a freelance writer in Billings. She enjoys writing about topics and issues that she herself seeks the answers to. She is a mother of two.