As the mother of a child who was a sleepwalker, I can relate to how scary sleepwalking incidents can sometimes be for parents. Most of the time, the child will not have any recollection of his/her sleepwalking episodes and will usually outgrow sleepwalking by the teen years. Sleepwalking tends to be common in young children and is usually not an indication of any other medical condition.
My oldest son experienced sleepwalking episodes from the time he was a toddler until he reached his later teen years. Sleepwalking, or somnambulism, is thought to run in families and occurs mainly during the deep sleep stages 3 and 4 of the sleep cycle. During these stages of sleep, people are generally hard to awaken and may feel groggy or disoriented if they do waken. Therefore, as opposed to attempting to awaken a sleepwalker, it is better to gently guide them safely back to their own bed.
My oldest son’s first somnambulant excursion occurred when he was about 2 years old. He walked from his bed into the kitchen, where he was blankly staring into space, looking glassy eyed and crying at the top of his lungs. I had no clue what was wrong, as he was soundly sleeping minutes before. I picked him up and held him, talked to him, trying to console him. Nothing worked. He just continued to stare into space while screaming, and he was totally unresponsive to anything I said or did. Being a young mother of 22 at the time, this scared the daylights out of me. His dad and I were beginning to panic, having no clue what the problem was, when he suddenly stopped crying, placed his head on my shoulder and fell back to sleep.
Disturbed by this incident, I placed a call to his pediatrician, who suggested he may have been sleepwalking while simultaneously having night terrors. It is common for sleep apnea, bedwetting or night terrors to accompany episodes of sleepwalking. My son also exhibited some common traits of sleepwalkers, as sleepwalkers may also talk in their sleep, appear dazed and unresponsive, are hard to awaken, walk or sit up and repeat certain motions. They can do all of the above with their eyes wide open, while still remaining asleep.
Some of my son’s later sleepwalking episodes included his walking into the front room one evening, stopping in front of the television and pretending to shoot baskets. When his father and I asked him what he was doing, he replied “Shooting hoops,” all while still asleep. We told him the basketball game was over and he needed to go lie down, and helped him back to bed. Another time, at 2:30 a.m., he rushed out to the living room, book bag in hand and proceeded to put it on his back and put his shoes on. I casually asked him where he was going, and he said “I’m going to be late for school!” I escorted him back to his room, telling him it was the middle of the night and he was not going to be late.
However, the one truly frightening experience occurred one night while he was sleeping over at a friend’s house as a teenager. He actually got up, walked out of their house and proceeded to lie down in their driveway and continue to sleep, waking up there the next morning. My son conveniently neglected to tell me about this incident for several months after the fact. Finding out about that incident really frightened me because anything could have happened, but thank God, did not.
I believe the sleepwalking originated from my side of the family because one of my mother’s sisters was a sleepwalker. As a child, my aunt once woke and walked out the front door of the home, across the yard and into the next door neighbor’s house. The following morning, the neighbor lady came over to find out why my aunt was sleeping on her couch. Keep in mind, this incident occurred more than 70 years ago, when the world was a much safer and trusting place. As you can imagine, today, this type of incident could have catastrophic consequences, which is why it is extremely important to take any necessary precautions to keep the sleepwalker safe.
If someone in your home sleepwalks, you should take measures to ensure their safety. If stairs are a concern, place safety gates at the entrances to avoid falls. Consider placing that child on a bottom bunk if bunk beds are used. You may also want to consider keeping windows and doors locked during the night. If there are any dangerous objects lying around, or cluttered pathways, you may want to take some steps to prevent any accidents. It is also important to hide car keys because some sleepwalkers may attempt to drive if old enough to operate a motor vehicle.
If sleepwalking continues beyond the teen years, or is of concern to at any age, discuss this with your child’s doctor. They may recommend treatment in the form of scheduled awakenings or suggest other useful tips to help you and your child deal with this condition.