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Pediatric sleepwalking is when a child gets up during sleep but is unaware of their actions. It’s also known as somnambulism. Sleepwalking is most commonly seen in children between the ages of 4 and 8.
Most children who sleepwalk do so an hour or two after falling asleep. Sleepwalking episodes usually last from five to 15 minutes. This behavior is typically harmless and most children grow out of it. But it can be dangerous if left unaddressed. It’s important to protect your child from injury as a result of sleepwalking.
There are a number of factors that can contribute to sleepwalking. Common causes include:
Though uncommon, sleepwalking can be a symptom of an underlying condition. These conditions may include:
Walking during sleep may be the most common symptom of sleepwalking, but there are other actions associated with this condition.
Sleepwalking symptoms may include:
Usually, a doctor can diagnose sleepwalking based on other family member’s accounts of the child’s behavior. Generally, no treatment is needed. Your doctor may wish to conduct a physical and psychological exam to rule out other conditions that can cause sleepwalking. If another medical issue is causing your child’s sleepwalking, treatment is needed for the underlying issue.
If the doctor suspects another sleep problem, such as sleep apnea or night terrors, a sleep study may be ordered. A sleep study involves spending the night in a sleep lab. Electrodes are attached to certain parts of the child’s body to measure heart rate, brain waves, breathing rate, muscle tension, eye and leg movement, and oxygen level in the blood. A camera may also record the child as they sleep.
If sleepwalking is troublesome, your doctor may recommend using a technique called scheduled awakening. This involves monitoring your child for a few nights to determine when the sleepwalking usually occurs and then rousing your child from sleep 15 minutes before the expected sleepwalking. This can help reset the child’s sleep cycle and control sleepwalking behavior.
If sleepwalking is causing dangerous behaviors or excessive fatigue, a doctor may prescribe medication, such as benzodiazepines (psychoactive drugs typically prescribed to treat anxiety) or antidepressants.
If you notice your child sleepwalking, try to gently guide him or her back to bed. Do not try to wake the sleepwalker, as this could aggravate them. Instead, simply reassure your child with words and help steer them back to bed.
There are also safety measures that can be applied around the house to help keep your child safe. These include:
Helping your child develop good sleep habits and relaxation techniques can help prevent sleepwalking.
Try the following to help prevent sleepwalking:
Talk to your doctor if you have other concerns. Let them know if your child’s sleepwalking continues for an extended period of time.
Written by: Janelle Martel
Medically reviewed on: Nov 23, 2015: Steven Kim, MD
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