As my husband and I sat at our kitchen table late one evening, we heard a thud above us. Our son, then 18 months, had recently started sleeping in a toddler bed in preparation for his sister’s arrival. His transition to a big boy bed had gone smoothly, but on occasion, he liked to venture out of his bed to see what Mommy and Daddy were doing. On that evening, I raised my eyebrow at my husband and told him I’d deal with the rogue toddler.
But when I got to the stairs, I was horrified.
My toddler son was standing at the top of the stairs, his feet right at the edge, and was staring off into space. Not wanting to startle him, I slowly proceeded up the stairs, hoping to catch him should he take a tumble. When I got to him, I realized that he was awake, but he wasn’t. His eyes were open and appeared almost glassy. He mumbled something about wanting to find a toy, and as I guided him back to his bedroom, I realized that he was, in fact, sleepwalking.
And it scared the shit out of me.
Immediately after that incident, we installed a gate at the top of our stairs to safeguard him from falling in the middle of the night. We still have that gate in place, 13 years later. Because our son has never outgrown his sleepwalking habit, even after all these years.
Sleepwalking, also known as somnambulism, is very common in children, particularly between the ages of 5 and 12. Most children will eventually grow out of their sleepwalking habits, but for some kids like our son, sleepwalking can persist into the teen years.
Sleepwalking itself is not harmful to a child, but often, the causes are related to a chaotic sleep schedule, bedwetting, being overtired, or illness. For us, we’ve learned that our son is more likely to sleepwalk when his sleep schedule has been erratic, so we’ve kept him on a routine bedtime schedule as much as possible as he’s grown up.
When you are the parent of a child who sleepwalks, the nighttime hours become fraught with stress and worry. When our son was very small, he’d often wander out of his room and talk gibberish with us. Or he’d wander into our room and try to perform a task, like playing with toys that weren’t there or have a playdate with kids who were clearly invisible. Every time it happened, we would chuckle at the ridiculousness of sleepwalking and gently lead him back to bed.
And that worked for a long time, before he was old enough to attend camps and sleepovers at friends’ houses.
But my son’s sleepwalking became a major source of stress for us as our son got older and wasn’t always at home, tucked in his bed, under our watchful eye. We have had to make sure that his grandparents, Scout leaders, and other parents know that he is likely to sleepwalk and even had to have a talk with his best friend about how to help our son should he sleepwalk during a sleepover.
Parents of sleepwalkers have very real safety concerns for their children. And it can be scary AF to see your child performing purposeful actions while completely and utterly asleep. Most of all, parents of sleepwalkers are always worried that their child will wander out of the house and be physically harmed. Whether it’s worries about their children falling down stairs or being exposed to cold temperatures from wandering outside, parents with sleepwalking children are light sleepers, and we are exhausted.
If you witness your child sleepwalking for the first time, don’t panic. It’s scary, weird, and unexpected, but there are a few things you can do to minimize the trauma to both you and your child:
1. Stay calm.
Speak to your child in a quiet voice and gently redirect them to their room. Shouting or loud speaking can also result in your sleepwalking child abruptly waking up and being frightened, making matters worse.
2. Lock all doors, windows, and exits to your home.
And make sure all windows are securely locked in the sleepwalking child’s bedroom. Installing a gate at the top of the stairs will help thwart your little wanderer from getting too far.
3. Don’t try to wake your child up as this will cause further panic and confusion for your child.
Most children are happy to be lead back to bed, and the incidents are self-limited. Enlist the help of other siblings and family members to be mindful of their sleepwalking sibling.
4. Keep a consistent bedtime or sleep schedule for a child who sleepwalks.
I know this is easier said than done, but it really does help over time. Children who are chronically fatigued or lacking sleep often sleep fitfully and are more prone to their sleepwalking behaviors. We have found that a consistent bedtime routine does wonders for our son. And when he was small, we made sure he always got an afternoon snooze.
5. Tell your neighbors that you have a child who sleepwalks.
I know this sounds overbearing to many of you, but in the unlikely event that your child actually wanders out of the house, your best line of defense is a neighbor who knows that your child needs assistance. Teach them what to do for your child, and make sure your immediate neighbors have your phone number should a sleepwalking situation arise.
Sleepwalking can be scary, but in all honestly, it has led to some pretty funny moments in our family’s history. We are still laughing about an incident recently where our son was convinced his legs were being held together by magnets. His teenaged man voice could be heard booming all over the house, crying out for assistance. For the record, there were no magnets, and it was hilarious.
He never remembers his sleepwalking incidents in the morning, and now that he’s becoming a teenager, I have half a mind to record his sleepwalking antics. I’m sure his eye-rolling will shape up if I threaten to show his friends or girlfriend a video of him sleepwalking in his underwear…