By Lynelle Schneeberg, PsyD, “The Kid’s Bedtime Doctor”
Sleepwalking is a normal part of childhood and is not considered a sleep disorder. It is however, fairly common. Up to 40% of children sleepwalk at some point and, most of the time, this behavior disappears by puberty. A recent study surveyed parents of 1,800 children in Australia and their parents noted that 10% percent of these children (ages 5-10 years old) had done some sleepwalking just the previous week.
Sleepwalking cannot be entirely prevented but there are several ways to keep your child safe and injury free during a sleepwalking episode.
Provide a safe environment
If your child sleepwalks, your most important job as a parent is providing a safe environment. First and foremost, you must have a way to be immediately aware that your child is “on the move” at night. Some parents use a motion sensor with an alarm on their child’s bedroom door but you may also want to consider a bed alarm.
A bed alarm consists of a pad that is placed under the fitted sheet of your child’s bed just where your child’s back would be when he or she is asleep. The pad is connected to an alarm by a cord that is usually a few feet long. This cord and alarm can be placed underneath your child’s bed, hung on the headboard or even mounted on the wall. The moment your child gets out of bed, the alarm will sound to alert you. You can then come to your child’s room, silence the alarm, help your child back to bed, and reset the alarm each time this behavior occurs. You can also put a baby monitor in your bedroom to make sure that you hear the bed alarm.
I recommend this type of alarm because it can go along with your child wherever he or she goes. Your child is especially at risk if he or she sleepwalks while on a sleepover, in a hotel, at summer camp, at a relative’s home, or in any new environment. You will also need to be sure that any adults who will be responsible for your child know exactly how to use this alarm, of course.
Other home safety measures are recommended as well. You can install gates (especially at the top of any stairways); add night lights around the bedroom, hallway and home; alarm and secure all exit doors and windows, and perhaps install high deadbolts on all exit doors in addition as well. You will also want to keep floors and hallways clutter-free.
What to do if you find your child sleepwalking
When you intercept your sleepwalking child, just guide him or her back to bed. Don’t try to wake your child since this can be more distressing. It’s not really necessary to talk with your child about the sleepwalking episode the next day since he or she will be unaware of it. Moreover, talking about these episodes too much may make your child feel embarrassed, or may even make your child frightened about going to bed.
What else can you do?
Try scheduled awakenings. Write down the time that of night that your child sleepwalks for a couple of weeks and, if it often occurs at the same time, try going to your child’s bed about 15 minutes prior to this time. Gently rouse your child by speaking his or her name in a soft voice until your child flutters his or her eyelids or changes position, and then gently encourage him or her to drop right back off to sleep. These scheduled awakenings can often prevent the sleepwalking episode entirely.
Take an inventory of your child’s room at the time that he or she often sleepwalks. Is there a noise that occurs right around that time? Perhaps there is a neighbor that arrives home from a late shift and slams a car door, for example? Does a pet jump onto or off of your child’s bed at that time of night? Is the sleepwalking episode linked to a time when your child might need to go to the bathroom? Be sure you’ve addressed all of these causes, and feel free to add a fan or white noise machine to your child’s room to mask ambient noises in the home or neighborhood, if necessary.
Treat bed wetting if your child is still wetting the bed after age seven. Some children sleepwalk when their bladder is too full at night. Please see my blog post on treating bedwetting in older children for more information.
Make sure your child is getting enough sleep and that your child can fall asleep independently. Sleepwalking is much more common in sleep-deprived children and in those with inconsistent sleep schedules. It’s also more common in children who require a lot of time to fall asleep at bedtime. Finally, it’s more often seen in children who need a parent nearby in order to fall asleep at bedtime or to return to sleep after a night waking. All children wake up during the night and, if there is something missing, such as the presence of a parent who was there at bedtime, this can trigger a sleepwalking episode.
Sleepwalking can definitely be one more worry for you as a parent but, with the right approach and some good safety measures, you can make sleepwalking less likely and keep your child safe and secure!