Sleep Disorders: Sleepwalking
You wake in the middle of the night by a noise in your room. As you open your eyes you are confronted by your child, standing motionless next to your bed, staring at you like a zombie. Although it sounds quite frightening, this scenario is very common, particularly for parents of young children who experience sleepwalking. Why do people sleep walk? Let's attempt to unravel this mystery and discuss ways to prevent it.
What is sleepwalking?
Sleepwalking (also known as somnambulism) is a very common sleep disorder that occurs in roughly 15% of children under six, and decreases as children get older. The brain does something quite unusual during sleepwalking. For a long time people believed the brain could only be in one state at a time, either awake or asleep. However, during a bout of sleepwalking, the brain is essentially caught in both states together. Part of the brain is asleep while other parts are awake. This leads to an odd combination of walking and movement as if the person is awake, with very little understanding and interaction with the surroundings. Most of the time, when a person is sleep walking, they do not remember the event the next morning.
What causes sleepwalking?
In many cases, sleepwalking can be genetic. If a parent experienced sleep walking as a child, the child is twice as likely experience the sleep disorder as well. We also know that the younger you are, the more likely you are to sleepwalk. So, why do kids sleep walk? This is because sleepwalking typically occurs during a partial awakening from the deep stages of sleep, and you are more likely to spend time in deep sleep when you are younger. This partial awakening can occur unprovoked, but can also be caused by an external disruption like noise or underlying medical issues, such as gastroesophageal reflux and eczema.
Treatment for Sleepwalking
When it comes to sleepwalking, the most important part of treatment is to ensure that the child or adult is safe. If you live with someone who experiences sleep walking, it is important to make sure that the person cannot leave the house and that there are no objects that can cause them harm while sleepwalking. Second, it is important to understand that in most cases, sleepwalking is not dangerous to the person's long-term well-being, and it is typically outgrown. However, if sleepwalking occurs suddenly during adulthood, or persists into the adolescent years, it is recommended that you talk to your physician to evaluation for underlying sleep disorders such as sleep apnea.
One question that most people have is should you wake a person while sleepwalking? While old wive's tales say not to wake a sleepwalker because it may cause them to have a heart attack, this is simply not true. However, the best approach when dealing with a sleepwalker is to gently guide the person back to bed, since waking them completely may lead to confusion or even aggression.
Overall, it is vital to get good quality and quantity of sleep. If you have a disruption in your sleep, you are likely to spend more time in the deeper stages of sleep each night to recover from the sleep deprivation, so this could increases the chances of having a sleepwalking episode. And, although sleepwalking has a dramatic presentation, in most cases it resolves over time, particularly if the proper attention is paid to ensuring good sleep quality. If you or your child has frequent bouts of sleepwalking that are disruptive or may lead to injury, please talk with your doctor.