You hear a bump in the night. You think it’s your toddler coming to climb into bed with you or ask for a glass of water. Instead, it’s your child sleepwalking. While initially a little scary to witness, sleepwalking in children — also known as somnambulism — is fairly common, especially in children between the ages of four years old and eight years old. It’s even more common if sleepwalking runs in the family. So, if you or your partner are known to sleepwalk, then chances are your little one will too.
However, most kids who sleepwalk will do so only occasionally and will most likely outgrow it before they hit their teens (a time period that can also be scary to witness, ha!). Despite somnambulism being a normal thing, though, sleepwalking in children can be worrisome for a parent. To help prepare you for your child’s potential nocturnal behavior, here’s what you need to know.
What causes kids to sleepwalk?
Children tend to sleepwalk within an hour or two of falling asleep and may walk around for anywhere from a few seconds to 30 minutes. They typically begin to sleepwalk as they shift from a deep sleep to a lighter sleep. Curious why this happens? Well, there are a number of things that may bring on a sleepwalking episode. Those might include:
- fatigue or lack of sleep
- irregular sleep schedule
- illness or fever
- sleeping with a full bladder
- a new environment
- certain medications, including sedatives, stimulants, and antihistamines
- family history of sleepwalking
Other less common things that cause sleepwalking in a child include:
- sleep apnea
- night terrors
- head injuries
What happens during sleepwalking?
Sleepwalking can be just that — walking while sleeping. In this scenario, your child’s eyes will be open and may sport a glazed appearance (for just the right amount of haunting effect, eh?). When a child is sleepwalking, they won’t see or recognize you. They might be able to sleeptalk with you, but their conversation probably won’t make much sense. They might be able to carry out simple tasks like changing clothes or fixing furniture. Some might even urinate in odd places, like on the floor or in a closet. Repetitive motions like rubbing their eyes or fussing with their PJs could also indicate sleepwalking.
Sleepwalking could become dangerous if your child wanders outdoors or does something that has the potential to hurt them, like trip and fall.
Why shouldn’t you wake up sleepwalkers?
Contrary to popular belief, waking a sleepwalker up won’t send them into shock or induce a heart attack. It’s actually to protect you. Waking them up won’t injure them mentally, but it will startle them, causing them to possibly whack you. It can also be dangerous to wake them if they’re in the middle of something, like holding an object or climbing the stairs. Again, they can whack you with the item or end up hurting themselves.
What should you do if you catch your kid sleepwalking?
If you catch your little one sleepwalking, don’t try to jostle them out of it or shout at them to “wake up!” It’ll only scare them. Here’s what to do instead.
- Gently guide them back to bed. You might even carefully hold them if that helps them. Otherwise, handle them with a light and gentle touch, reassuring them that everything is fine. Make sure that you guide them safely and soundly to their bedroom and tuck them in. You might even repeat soothing affirmations like, “You’re safe now,” or “Everything is fine, you can sleep now.”
- Avoid holding your child back or down. Again, you can guide them but at the same time let them go wherever they like (as long as it’s safe). However, you shouldn’t forcibly interfere with your child’s sleepwalking.
- Be preventative. If you notice your kid sleepwalking, it’s a solid idea to install some safety measures in case they do it again. For example, you might want to install a baby gate at the foot of the stairs or any other doorways. It’s important to keep their room clean so they don’t trip and fall. Remove anything sharp or potentially harmful from their bedroom and immediate area. Keep keys out of reach. Don’t let them sleep in a bunk bed. Also, make sure all windows and doors to the outside are locked and secure. You might even want to install an alarm system for added peace of mind.
- Let others know about their sleepwalking habit. It’s important to let your child’s babysitter or caregiver know about your child’s sleepwalking habit so they can be prepared.
- Sleepwalking is a bit unnerving, but it’s important not to make a big deal out of it. You don’t want your child to be afraid to go to sleep or internalize your anxiety. So, don’t make a big fuss about their sleepwalking the next day.
- Make sure your child is getting enough rest. Your kiddo should have a regular bedtime, so they’re getting an adequate amount of sleep and not staying up too late. This can reduce your child’s sleepwalking adventures.
It’s important to remember that while your child is sleepwalking, they won’t recognize or acknowledge you. They also rarely remember what they did the next morning. Sleepwalking comes in different forms. It doesn’t always mean your child took a lap around the house or that they journeyed to another room. Sometimes it’s very stationary and looks like your child sitting up in bed, repeating gestures, or fiddling with their pajamas.
Can you prevent your kid from sleepwalking?
While there’s no way to guarantee your child won’t sleepwalk again, there are some things that parents can do to help prevent repeat occurrences. A few ideas include:
- Establishing a regular bedtime. A child needs restful sleep that’s consistent. Establish a relaxing and soothing bedtime that they can expect, which also includes them going to bed at the same time every night and waking up at the same time every morning. Make sure their bed is quiet, cool, and dark so as to welcome sleep.
- Limiting activity before bed. To ensure they have a deep sleep, it’s a good idea to limit playtime and watching TV and movies before bedtime. Another smart tactic? Limiting their caffeine and sugar before they snooze, since such stimulants can also prevent them from getting enough ZZZs.
- Making sure they go to the bathroom before bed. Limiting drinks before their bedtime will help avoid a potentially sleep-disruptive full bladder, but you still want to ensure your kid pees before going to sleep.
- Scheduling nap time for younger kids. Making sure your kid gets some shuteye during the day is a great way to prevent your toddler from sleepwalking.
When should you see a doctor?
Typically, sleepwalking isn’t anything to be too concerned about. But if your kid is sleepwalking more than twice a week on the regular or injuring themselves, then it’s a good idea to consult with your family doctor. The same holds true if the sleepwalking is less frequent but stretches into the tween years (or even into their teens). If while your little one roams they snore loudly, seem to gasp for air, or struggle to breathe, you should contact their pediatrician. Urinating during sleepwalking or tiredness during the day is something you should also mention to their doctor.