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Night Terrors and Sleepwalking in Children

For most of time, scientists thought our brains could only be in one of three states at any given time: awake, rapid eye movement sleep (aka, REM sleep or dream sleep) and non-rapid eye movement sleep (NREM sleep). However, according to the latest research on sleepwalking, the brain can be in two states at once. When a child has an episode like sleepwalking and talking or a night terror, the child’s brain is stuck between awake and deep sleep. In fact, if they were hooked up to an EEG (which records brain waves), it would show a combination of patterns seen in both the awake and sleep states. Although this may sound concerning, these events in young children are quite common and tend to disappear as they get older.

Let’s discuss the main things parents should know about sleepwalking and night terrors:

The Basics of Sleepwalking and Night Terrors in Children

What do these events look like? Well, during sleepwalking, a child may appear awake and will have left the bed. The child may walk from room to room with relative ease. However, they are not typically aware of their immediate surroundings and the people around them.

For sleep terrors, otherwise referred to as night terrors, in children, they will look terrified and typically are screaming without any reason to do so. They also will not be aware of their surroundings and won’t recognize caregivers. In fact, they may try to fight off any help during the event. However, it is important to differentiate these night terrors from nightmares.

Unlike night terrors, nightmares tend to occur in the latter half of the night and may cause a child to wake up fully. The child may seem distressed by the dream, but is well aware of their surroundings and able to communicate with caregivers.

Both sleepwalking and night terrors tend to occur out of the deeper stages of sleep, and children spend more time in deep sleep during the first third of the night. Therefore, these events will occur more commonly within the first few hours of falling asleep.

What causes sleepwalking in the brain?

Although the exact cause of the events is often unclear, we do know that anything that increases deep sleep can make events worse. The most common cause of increased deep sleep in children is sleep deprivation. We also know that anything leading to more arousal or small awakenings from sleep can also cause sleepwalking or night terrors. This can include noise in the environment (such as a phone ringing or a loud car passing by the house) or internal factors such as gastroesophageal reflux, sleep apnea, or even eczema, to name a few.

What can you do as a parent or caregiver?

  1. Be reassured that in most cases, sleepwalking and night terrors in children are very benign and improve as the child ages. And, keep in mind that they are not triggered by stress or psychiatric disturbances.
  2. Ensure your child's sleep environment is safe in case an event occurs. Sharp corners, easily opened windows, or heavy objects around the room should be secured.
  3. If the child experiences an event, try your best to gently guide them back into the bed. Typically children will fall back to sleep and awake the next day unaware that the event even took place. Avoid the temptation to forcefully wake the child, as this can prolong the event or cause the child to become confused or scared upon awakening.
  4. Finally, try to help your child get a good night of sleep each night to prevent sleep deprivation. Tips on good sleep hygiene practices can be found here.

Latest research on sleepwalking and night terrors

While sleepwalking and night terrors are common in children, there does appear to be a genetic predisposition for some individuals. A study on twins found that identical twins are six times more likely to experience these events if their twin encounters them, compared to non-identical twins. Research has also shown that these events are common. A study in Canada that looked at 1,997 families found that night terrors occurred in 40 percent of children between the ages of two and a half and six years old, while sleepwalking occurred in 15 percent of them. If your child suffers from either of these, you are certainly not alone.

Although sleepwalking and night terrors might seem concerning, rest assured that they are typically not a reason to be worried and over time they should improve. However, speak with your doctor if you suspect an underlying medical disorder is disrupting your child’s sleep and provoking the events.

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