Sleepwalking: Symptoms, Causes and Treatment Options

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What is sleepwalking?

Sleepwalking (also called somnambulism) is a behavior in which your child appears to wake up during the night and walk or do other activities without any memory of having engaged in the activities.

Sleepwalking tends to occur within an hour or two of falling asleep and may last on average between 5 and 15 minutes.

What are the symptoms of sleepwalking?

The most obvious sign is getting out of bed and walking around. But sleepwalking actually can involve a range of other behaviors, including:

  • sitting up in bed and repeating movements, such as rubbing eyes or tugging on pajamas
  • looking dazed (sleepwalkers’ eyes are open but they do not see the same way they do when they are fully awake)
  • being clumsy
  • not responding when spoken to
  • being difficult to wake up
  • sleep talking
  • urinating in undesirable places

What are the causes of sleepwalking?

Causes of sleepwalking include:

  • hereditary (i.e., the condition may run in families)
  • lack of sleep or fatigue
  • interrupted sleep or inefficient sleep (including from disorders like sleep apnea)
  • illness or fever
  • certain medications
  • stress, anxiety
  • going to bed with full bladder
  • noisy sleep environment/different sleep environment

What should I do if my child sleepwalks?

  • Preventing injury is the most important thing you can do. Keep dangerous objects out of your child’s reach. Close and lock windows and doors. Latches or bolts on outer doors may need to be installed beyond your child’s reach. Heavy drapes may help as a deterrent to accessing a window. If necessary, have your child sleep on the ground floor of your home so they don’t fall down stairs. Remove sharp and breakable objects from around your child’s bed. Eliminate clutter from floors. Install safety gates outside your child’s room and at the top of stairs. Don’t let your child sleep in a bunk bed.
  • Keep car keys out of reach. Do not forget gun safety and turn down the set-point on your water heater to prevent scalds.
  • If you find your child sleepwalking, gently guide him or her back to bed. Do not awaken him or her. You may not even be able to. Attempting to do so can cause your child more aggravation. Instead, just steer your child back to bed while offering calm, reassuring statements, such as "you are safe, you are in your own bed."

Do I need to be concerned if my child sleepwalks?

No. Most children who sleepwalk do not have emotional or psychological problems. Most children grow out of sleepwalking by the time they are teenagers.

Does sleepwalking need to be treated?

For children who sleepwalk more often, your doctor may recommend a treatment method called scheduled awakening. This treatment works as follows: for several nights you record the time between when your child falls asleep and the beginning of the sleepwalking event. Then for the next several nights in a row, you arouse your child 15 minutes before the expected time of the event. You do not need to completely awaken the child, simply disturb the sleep enough to a brief arousal. This disrupts the sleep cycle transiently and may abort the sleepwalking in some cases.

Other helpful ways you might be able to reduce your child’s sleepwalking events:

  • Have your child relax at bedtime by listening to soft music or relaxation tapes or CDs.
  • Establish regular nap and sleep schedules and stick with them – both nighttime and wake-up times. Naps are important in the younger child. This will eliminate sleep deprivation, a known trigger for sleepwalking.
  • Cut back on the amount of liquids your child consumes in the evening and make sure he or she goes to the bathroom before bedtime (a full bladder contributes to sleepwalking).
  • Avoid caffeine near bedtime (caffeinated products include coffee, tea, colas, some non-cola pops, energy drinks and chocolates).
  • Make sure your child’s bedroom is quiet, calm, comfortable (< 75° F), and sufficiently dark.

If stress is thought to contribute to the problem, counseling may help. Hypnosis or biofeedback may also be looked into.

On rare occasions, doctors may prescribe a medication to help your child sleep.

When should a call to the doctor be considered?

Consider calling your doctor if any of the following occur:

  • The episodes are frequent, severe or potentially injurious
  • The sleepwalker gets repeatedly injured during events
  • The sleepwalker leaves the house
  • Events last beyond the teenage years
  • Events result in daytime sleepiness
  • Stress, anxiety, or other psychological factors appear to contribute to sleep disturbances
  • You suspect a seizure disorder or suspect interrupted sleep from sleep apnea or limb movement disorder of sleep. These may need an EEG or a sleep study to investigate.

Additional Sleep Information and Suggested Readings

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This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 1/26/2009…#14292


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