Each year in the United States, nearly three million cases of sleepwalking are reported. In the vast majority of cases, the sleepwalker is a child under the age of twelve. Sleepwalking children may actually walk around the house, perform unusual repetitive motions, or even have conversations—all while actually being fast asleep.
Certainly this can be alarming for other family members who are aware of the telltale signs of sleepwalking. But is sleepwalking actually dangerous? What causes sleepwalking? Is there any sleepwalking treatment? And how can you prevent sleepwalking from happening?
What Is Sleepwalking?
Sleepwalking, also called somnambulism or noctambulism, has been known to humans for 2,500 years. It is literally a scenario where a person is walking while being asleep, and sometimes performing other normally waking actions like talking, eating, or even in very rare cases driving or operating other machinery.
In modern medicine, sleepwalking is classified as a non-REM parasomnia: a group of sleep disorders that include sleep-talking, night terrors, sleep-related eating disorders, and confused arousals.
How Common Is Sleepwalking?
Sleepwalking is a rare occurrence. Even with three million annually reported cases, that still comes to less than one percent (1%) of the current 327 million-person population of the United States. Only about four percent (4%) of adults in this country are sleepwalkers. Most cases of sleepwalking in children end by the time a child reaches the age of 12.
Which Children Are Most Likely to Sleepwalk?
Sleepwalking in children between the ages of four and eight are the most likely group to sleepwalk. Especially likely to go sleepwalking are young children who have suffered from any kind of sleep disorder, such as night terrors, sleep apnea and bedwetting.
Is Sleepwalking Dangerous?
In and of itself, sleepwalking in adults and children is not considered to be a dangerous sleep disorder, as it generally is not indicative of any physiological or psychological issues. Most sleepwalkers return to bed without any memory of the event, and without any injury to themselves or others.
However, as sleepwalkers are less aware of their physical environments than when awake, they are at greater than usual risk of injury from trips, falls, and other physical mishaps. Thus, the popular myth that “One should never wake a sleepwalker” is incorrect: in fact, while waking a sleepwalker may be very difficult, it is better to wake them to keep them from blundering into potentially painful obstacles.
What Are Sleepwalking Signs?
Sleepwalkers are generally unaware of having sleepwalked at all, typically waking after an incidence with no idea anything unusual has occurred in the night. To a family member witnessing the somnambulence, though, sleepwalkers often display the following characteristics:
- Eyes that are open, but may appear “glassy” or “staring”
- When questioned, sleepwalkers may answer slowly or incoherently, or not respond at all.
- Typical movements of a sleepwalker include sitting up in bed; walking; running; climbing; and performing some kind of repetitive motion, almost as if they were trapped in an endless loop.
- More rarely, sleepwalkers may urinate—either in their clothes or in unexpected locations around a home.
Some sleepwalkers may give no sign whatsoever that they are not awake. Although popular entertainment often depicts sleepwalkers moving clumsily, holding their arms out as if reaching for something just out of their reach, sleepwalkers actually walk normally.
Sleepwalkers have been recorded behaving virtually the same way as if they were awake and alert, carrying on normal conversations, preparing food, etc., all without giving any clear sign of being asleep.
In the most rare and extreme cases of sleepwalking, the somnambulist unknowingly puts themselves in harm’s way. Sleepwalkers have been known to climb out of windows; run in the streets; and most dangerous of all, drive their cars while sleeping.
The Medical Mechanics of Sleepwalking
Medically speaking, sleepwalking is not a disease or ailment. It requires no lab tests or imaging, as there is no known specific physical or psychiatric source for somnambulism. Anyone may sleepwalk at any age, and it may start or end without any predictability.
While the reasons for sleepwalking remain unknown, medical science has at least has revealed the physiological mechanics of the phenomenon.
Humans normally sleep in a four-stage, 90-minute sleep cycle. Sleepwalking most often happens during the third stage, when we are in the deep, non-REM (rapid eye movement), non-dreaming portion of the sleep cycle. Our conscious brains are almost completely inactive at these times, generating only slow brainwaves, ensuring the mind stays in a deep, refreshing sleep. Yet, this is the very time the body is most likely to “toss and turn”—and in as many as 15% of sleepers, at this stage the sleep system activates the body into sleepwalking mode without ever waking the brain.
What Causes Sleepwalking?
Although researchers have not discovered any definitive cause, several factors have been shown to increase the likelihood of sleepwalking. Among them are the following:
- Sleep deprivation
- Irregular sleep schedules
- Medical conditions:
- Obstructive sleep apnea
- Acid reflux
- Magnesium deficiency
- Stress-induced conditions
- Psychoactive drugs that affect one’s level of consciousness (sedatives, hypnotics, tranquilizers, stimulants, antihistamines)
- Sleepwalking can run in families: if a close relative sleepwalks, you are ten times more likely to do it, too.
However, sleepwalking may indicate the presence of another, more serious sleep disorder. For example, obstructive sleep apnea is a condition in which one’s breathing is interrupted repeatedly during sleep. This sometimes results in an inability to achieve Stage 4 REM sleep, and poor quality sleep overall. Such conditions may cause sleepwalking to occur.
Sleepwalking Treatment: How to Prevent Sleepwalking
As sleepwalking in children is far more common than in adults, the treatment of sleepwalking is generally preventative in nature, rather than via dosages of sleeping or psychoactive medications. Among these sleepwalking treatment options to prevent sleepwalking are:
- Ensuring a full night’s sleep (minimum six to eight hours; most children need more sleep than this, depending on their age)
- Ending high-stimulus activities at least two hours before bedtime, including TV, computers, mobile devices, video games, etc.
- Teaching children how to relax via meditation, relaxation, or other calming techniques
- Creating a calm, quiet, comfortable sleep environment
- Climate control: setting the temperature of the room low enough to promote sleep
Sleep specialists should be consulted if a sleepwalking child is having frequent or increased episodes of somnambulism, has injured themselves, or has displayed violent behaviors while sleepwalking. Unfortunately, without any specific medical tests available to test for sleepwalking, several other medical and psychological evaluations may be required in understanding and identifying any contributing causes.
Excessive sleepwalking may respond positively to short-term prescriptions of medications such as benzodiazepines and antidepressants. Just a few weeks of use have been shown to be effective in preventing sleepwalking. Hypnotism and behavioral therapy have also been useful tools in the treatment of sleepwalking.
No matter what treatment is implemented, sleepwalking in children appears to be something that most kids simply “grow out of.” Reported cases of sleepwalking in children usually end by the time they reach the age of 12. And despite the fact there remain no known causes of sleepwalking, even through 25 centuries of recorded medical history, it appears virtually all sleepwalking children survive this sleep disorder without any lasting harm.
If you have any other questions regarding sleepwalking in your child, please contact Premier Sleep Associates in Bellevue, Washington at (425) 698-1732.