Is it normal for children to sleepwalk? How common is sleepwalking?
It’s fairly normal for children to walk in their sleep. Up to 40% of school-age kids sleepwalk at times, usually in the first few hours after going to bed. Even 30% of adults in the United States have experienced an episode of sleepwalking at some point; 3.6% in the past year. One-percent report 2 or more episodes per month. (Lloyd, 5-15-2012) Sleepwalking tends to be most common among the 15- to 24-year-old age bracket and among those who talk in their sleep. (Carroll & Vreeman, 2009)
What causes sleepwalking?
As Francesca Siclari, Giulio Tonini and Cludio Bassetti (2012, p. 39) explain, “Using imaging techniques, we have learned that while certain important regions of a sleepwalker’s brain behave as if the person is deeply asleep – such as the frontal lobe – others are unusually active, as if the person is wide awake.”
Sleepwalking has been linked to psychiatric illness, but it can also be a normal aspect of development. (Carroll & Vreeman, 2009) People with depression are about 3.5 times more likely to sleepwalk. (Lloyd, 5-15-2012) Certain antidepressants, sleeping pills, and other medications can also increase the risk. Sleepwalking may also be genetic: one 2015 study found that among children who’s parents both have a history of sleepwalking, more than 60% will develop the behavior. (Time, May 18, 2015, p. 27)
How to tell if a child is sleepwalking
Children who are sleepwalking may have their eyes open but are sound asleep. They can seem disoriented, and may even seem to respond to simple commands, so parents may at first be confused about what their child is doing. Most children will eventually outgrow this habit.
Is it dangerous to wake a sleepwalker?
Urban legend has it that waking a sleepwalker could cause brain damage, shock, or even a heart attack, causing the sleepwalker to drop dead. This is nonsense. As doctors Aaron Carroll and Rachel Vreeman write, “No sleepwalker has ever died as a result of being woken up while sleepwalking.” (Carroll & Vreeman, 2009) They may be confused or even startle and become afraid, in which case they might instinctively lash out, but other than that, there is no danger whatsoever in waking a child who is sleepwalking.
Often times the best course of action is to walk them back to their bed without waking them. But if this isn’t feasible, or if the sleepwalker is in a dangerous situation, by all means, wake them.
The Real Danger in Kids Walking in their Sleep
If your child is a sleepwalker, the greatest risk is that they might injure themselves while sleepwalking. Not only does sleepwalking increase the risk of falls, but every so often we come across cases of children walking down the street, going to a neighbor’s house, or even riding the bus across town while sleeping. They may leave the house and not be able to get back in, leaving them exposed to the elements. One survey of adults found that around 2.1% reported acting in dangerous ways while sleepwalking (Siclari, Tonini & Busseti, 2012), and kids are even more vulnerable. So if your child is a regular sleepwalker, you might consider the following safety precautions:
- Put locking bolts on the windows (don’t seal the windows shut, which is a fire hazard).
- Install a deadbolt on your doors high enough that they are out of reach.
- Remove any dangerous objects that might be in their room.
- Don’t let them sleep on the top bunk of a bunkbed.
- Put motion sensor alarms on your doors to alert you if they try to escape.
- Consider putting a safety gate on their bedroom door, which may keep them contained to their room.
- If their room is on the second floor, install a safety gate at the top of the stairs. One of the most common injuries occurs when they tumble down the stairs in their sleep.
- Install a bell on his door to alert you if he leaves in the middle of the night.
How to stop a child’s sleepwalking or reduce the incidents
There is no way to stop a child’s sleepwalking, but you can do a few things to decrease it. Ensuring your kids are getting at least 10 hours of sleep each night will tend to reduce the prevalence. So will avoiding caffeine, since disrupted sleep cycles can be a cause of sleepwalking. Treatment isn’t necessary in most cases, but if disturbances are happening every night, or if a child is at risk for harming himself or others, consult a doctor.
Sleepwalking & Violence
A 2010 review of nearly 20,000 telephone surveys across 6 different European countries found that about 1.7% of adult respondents reported behaving violently during sleep. (Siclari, Tonini & Bassetti, 2012) It’s unclear how many children may act out aggression during sleepwalking episodes. It’s probably a smaller number, but not completely unheard of.