It can be alarming to discover your child is a sleepwalker but it's
seldom something to worry about, provided you take care the sleeping child
has a safe environment in which to move.
Sleepwalking is generally a much misunderstood quirk of human behaviour.
Contrary to popular myth, those who walk or get up and about in their sleep
are not acting out their dreams.
The phenomenon is common in childhood - it has been estimated that one in
five children sleepwalk occasionally. The most common age for sleepwalking
is 10-14 years old, after which it occurs less and less frequently.
Some children will sleepwalk once and never again, while others will
sleepwalk regularly throughout their childhood. A few people even continue
sleepwalking as adults.
It seems likely that sleepwalking, or somnambulism as doctors call it, is
connected with the confused thoughts of deep sleep. Episodes are thought to
be triggered by anxiety, though the source of the anxiety doesn't need to be
serious to trigger it off. It could simply be a generally bad day.
THE ROOT OF THE PROBLEM
If someone in your family is sleepwalking night after night, there is likely
to be severe distress involved and this needs to be dealt with. In cases
like this, try to think of what could be upsetting the sleepwalker and if
there is anything you can do to help. If necessary, speak to your doctor
However, sleepwalking does seem to be a common trait in some families,
where the mildest worry is enough to send some members off on their
Sleepwalking occurs during the first three hours of sleep, when we are in
the deep, dreamless phase known as non REM sleep. REM (Rapid Eye Movement)
sleep refers to the lighter periods of sleep in which our eyes move under
our lids and we dream (although we may not recall our dreams).
A sleepwalker may just sit up quietly in bed, then get out and move about
in a confused and clumsy way. Most will remain in their bedrooms,
preoccupied with a particular activity like looking for something in
drawers, wardrobes or under the bed. They may mutter to themselves or repeat
phrases like, 'I've got to...', but if you talk back, they won't be able to
hear you as they are in deep sleep.
WHAT CAN THEY SEE?
There is some controversy over whether a sleepwalker can see. One theory is
that sleepwalkers find their way around mostly by memory. However,
experiments have shown that if you ask a sleepwalker to repeat his actions
while awake but blindfolded, he won't prove so adept at it.
The main worry is that the sleepwalker may think he is somewhere else, in
which case doors, walls and staircases will not be where he imagines they
Some sleepwalkers are more ambitious and may attempt to dress, go to the
fridge for food or even go for a walk outside.
The idea that it's dangerous to wake a sleepwalker is false. However, it
is likely to be difficult and it's also pointless, because if he wakes and
discovers he is not in his bed, he will be confused and may even become
It's best simply to guide him gently back to bed. Place your hand lightly
on his shoulder or just take him by the hand. Even if he sleeps in a top
bunk bed, lead him to the foot of the ladder and he will usually climb up of
his own accord.
TRIGGERED BY FEAR
In some cases, night terror is associated with sleepwalking. This is quite
different from a nightmare which occurs in REM or dreaming sleep. A
horrifying sensation and fleeting mental image catapults the sleeper into
Regular night terrors tend to happen at around the same time. One way
they can. be prevented is to wake the sleeper 10 minutes or so before they
normally occur and then let him return to sleep again.