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How to handle sleepwalking in children

It’s not uncommon for children to go on an occasional midnight romp around the house, though it can be disconcerting for parents. About 17 percent of kids sleepwalk, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Sleepwalking can begin as soon as kids can toddle but usually peaks between the ages of 8 and 12.

Fortunately, sleepwalking itself is harmless. It’s a type of parasomnia—a disorder of arousal that involves complex behaviors or movements during sleep. When kids sleepwalk, their brains are in a non-dreaming sleep and an awake state. They can perform major motor activities, such as walking, opening doors, and going to the bathroom (though not always in the correct spot). However, sleepwalkers have minimal cognitive functioning and can’t remember anything that happened in the morning.

A number of factors make kids more prone to sleepwalking. Scientists suspect that genetics may play an important role. A study appearing in the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics found that 47 percent of children who had one parent with a history of sleepwalking also sleepwalked. For children whose mother and father both had a history of sleepwalking, the rate was 61 percent.

Poor-quality sleep is another cause: Not getting enough sleep and not having a regular bedtime can be contributing factors. Sleep disruptors such as stress, illness, and a full bladder can also increase the likelihood of sleepwalking. Addressing these sleep hygiene issues can often reduce or eliminate nighttime incidences.

As a sleep medicine physician, I try to reassure parents that their kids will more than likely grow out of the condition. In the meantime, in addition to helping children get enough rest, one of the best things parents can do is remove any tripping hazards from the bedroom and living areas. They can also put padding on sharp corners and secure outside doors and windows with locks. While rare, there are cases where kids have ventured outside.

Finally, when parents do witness a sleepwalking episode, it’s best to gently coax the child back to bed. Waking them up will likely disorient and alarm them, so it’s better to let them continue to sleep.

For kids who suffer from frequent sleepwalking episodes or other parasomnias, scheduled awakenings are a good option. Going in to gently wake the child before she or he usually gets up to sleepwalk can “reset” the brain. While there are medications to suppress sleepwalking, physicians like myself rarely prescribe them. It’s generally best to address the issue with lifestyle changes or to just wait it out.

If you have questions about sleepwalking in your child, talk to your pediatrician or family medicine doctor. If the primary care provider is concerned about an underlying sleep issue, or if better sleep hygiene isn’t reducing sleep walking, she or he may refer you to a sleep medicine expert. Sleep doctors can confirm that there aren’t any undiagnosed causes for the disruptions.

For most families, however, a good sleep routine and a comfortable and hazard-free bedroom reduce incidences and offer parents peace of mind.

What about adults?

Sleepwalking in adults is rare, affecting only about 4 percent of the population, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. When adults sleepwalk, particularly if it’s a new habit, it’s usually best to talk to a sleep medicine physician.

A sleep expert can carefully evaluate the patient, consider sleep testing, and discover if there’s an underlying sleep issue that should be addressed.

Dr. Britt Jura is a pulmonologist and sleep medicine physician at Vancouver Clinic. He believes in offering care that supports patients’ whole health and incorporates their preferences