If you watch cartoons, chances are you have probably seen cartoon characters such as Bugs Bunny get out of bed in the middle of the night and have crazy adventures while they are sleepwalking.  While this makes for a great cartoon, however, the reality is no laughing matter and kids who have this problem will have to take precautions in order to stay safe.

What is Sleepwalking?

Sleepwalking is called a parasomnia, which is a medical term which refers to an unwanted event that happens during sleep. When someone sleepwalks, they are able to get up and walk around the house and even do things while they are still asleep.  Usually, sleepwalking occurs during the early part of the night, usually within a few hours of a child going to sleep.  It usually happens when a child is in a deep state of sleep or is moving from a deep stage to a lighter one.

How do You Know if You are a Sleepwalker?

A person who is sleepwalking does not know they are sleepwalking and parents or family members have to keep a close watch, because that person will sit up in bed or get out of bed, dress or undress, walk around the house or do other activities without even knowing it.  Often there is a dazed or blank expression on their face.  They are slow to respond when spoken to or will not respond at all. Sometimes they can exhibit odd behavior, such as urinating in the closet or doing other unusual things.

What Causes Sleepwalking?

There are actually a number of reasons that sleepwalking can occur. These include:

  • Lifestyle issues such as fatigue, not getting enough sleep or not following a sleep schedule.
  • Emotional problems such as depression, anxiety and chronic stress.
  • Medical reasons such as fever, breathing problems like sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome and some medications like antihistamines. Children who have problems with asthma or seizures might also be more likely to have problems sleepwalking.

Can Sleepwalking Lead to Complications?

Unfortunately, there are a lot of complications for kids who walk in their sleep.  These nighttime walks can lead children to accidentally injuring themselves through, for instance, falling down the stairs in the dark.  It is also possible for people who sleepwalk to become disoriented, confused or turn violent if someone tries to walk them up.  Apart from the possibility of accidents, children who sleepwalk can become excessively tired and sleepy during the day.

This condition can also lead to feelings of embarrassment or shame for the child who has this problem and can also lead to sleep disruptions for other family members.

Who is at Risk for Sleepwalking?

There are two major risk factors for sleepwalking: age (children are much more likely to have this problem than adults) and family history (if a close relative has this problem or had it in the past, this raises the risk as well).  There does not seem to be any connection between sleepwalking and gender or race/ethnicity.

How is Sleepwalking Diagnosed?

Sleepwalking in children is often discovered by parents and reported to the doctors and children may or may not be aware of the problem.  Doctors will base on diagnosis on parental reports of children’s behavior and sleeping habits but also will usually run tests to rule out other possible causes of this problem.  They might also order a sleep study, which takes place in a special part of the hospital and which observes a child’s sleep patterns to help understand what is going on.

How Do You Treat Sleepwalking?

The good news is that, in the vast majority of cases, there is no treatment required for this issue.  Children will usually outgrow this behavior on their own, usually by teenage years or young adulthood.

If treatment is required, it can include any of the following:

  • Treating the underlying medical cause for the sleepwalking, such as a particular medication or an overactive thyroid. Once the underlying cause is treated, the sleepwalking often resolves itself.
  • Certain medications can help solve this problem.
  • Stress management or treatment of underlying mental health/emotional problems.

If a parent sees their child sleepwalking, it is best to take them by the hand and lead them gently back to bed. Some parents have found that waking a child up before the sleepwalking usually begins, then staying up for a few minutes before going back to sleep is enough to break the cycle.

So, while sleepwalking is a concern due to the potential for children to harm themselves while they are in this sleep state, this behavior usually resolves itself naturally as a child matures and no treatment other than observation and making the environment safe is usually necessary.