Sleep walking – some practical tips

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Sleep walking

Did you know that approximately 15% of children between 4-12 years of age will experience sleepwalking at some time.

It can be quite disconcerting to bump into your child on the stairs looking wide awake but glassy eyed and they will probably not answer you when you talk to them and not remember the incident the next day either.

Although sometimes they may have a confused or mumbled conversation of some sort with you that seems completely random.

So what is sleep walking and what can you do about it?

Sleepwalking and sleep talking are members of a group of sleep disorders called parasomnias.

Though it’s not known exactly why children walk and talk in their sleep, neither are considered to be serious disorders, and are not result of any physical or psychological problem.

Why is my child sleepwalking?

Sleepwalking can be an indication that certain parts of your child’s brain may not be relaxing properly at bedtime. And sleep walking can be triggered by disruptions to your child’s normal sleep patterns, such as illness or fever, fatigue, stress or anxiety.

It is thought to occur in the beginning, slow-wave stages of non-rapid eye movement sleep (before dream sleep, or REM sleep). Children spend more time in slow-wave sleeping than adults. It could be related to a magnesium deficiency, and it is very possible that hormonal changes in early puberty could trigger it. So some people suggest taking a multi – vitamin to help.

Sometimes a row with a sibling can upset your child’s sleep patterns or a change in your circumstances – like divorce, redundancy or the death of a pet or loved one.

Is sleepwalking hereditary?

For most habitual sleepwalkers, there is a strong family history of the disorder. Certainly your child is more likely to be a sleepwalker if one of you suffered too.

Is sleepwalking dangerous?

Sleepwalking in itself is not dangerous and is generally not usually a sign of any more worrying problems. But if your child sleepwalks regularly you are going to have to take safety measures to be sure that they don’t hurt themselves while they are sleepwalking.

So here are some practical and simple ways to keep your sleepwalker safe:

• Install a baby gate at the top of the staircase.

• Re – think having bunk beds !

• Make sure your windows are locked shut. Make sure that any doors out of the house can’t be opened by a child, and lock doors to the cellar, kitchen and other dangerous places.

• Check each night before lights go out for trailing electrical leads, sharp objects, shoes lying around and toys or, indeed, anything on the floor which your child could trip over or hurt themselves on and put away any things that are easily broken.

• Make sure not to leave water or hot drinks or glasses on bedside tables.

• It may be difficult for you to protect your sleep-walking child, since they don’t make much noise, which makes it difficult for you to tell when your child is sleepwalking. Some parents I know have popped up a bell on their child’s bedroom door so that if your child’s door opens during the night, you are alerted. It’s more for your benefit than theirs so you can gently guide them back to bed and keep them safe.

• Most experts suggest that you don’t wake them but just guide them safely back to bed.

How often do children sleepwalk?

A child may sleepwalk once and never sleepwalk again. I know my own son Will got up and went downstairs a couple of times when he was becoming a teenager and then never did it again.

Others may sleepwalk once a month or so. Still others may sleepwalk almost nightly. If you are worried at all you should consult your doctor or health visitor and asked to be referred to a sleep specialist to put your mind at rest.

What should I do if I find my child sleepwalking?

• Make sure that they are as safe.

• Guide them back to bed gently.

• Try not to wake them.

What should I think about longer term?

Children may be embarrassed if told that they have walked in their sleep, or teased by siblings and friends. So explain what’s happening to your child and to other members of the family to make sure that their self esteem doesn’t suffer.

• If sleepwalking becomes a regular event, your child may begin to be reluctant to go to sleep. So try to make sure that you are relaxed, positive and reassuring first as your kids pick up on your vibes first, and then keep to regular relaxing routines.Lots of parents I coach find Relax Kids CDs very helpful for this.

• Try to establish a regular, relaxing bedtime routine. You could start an hour before bedtime with a warm bath, then have a story for a younger child or reading time in bed for an older child.

• You could also encourage older children to write a journal.

• Avoid eating, watching the television or playing on the computer just before bedtime.

• Limit fluid intake close to bedtime. A full bladder may contribute to sleepwalking episodes, so don’t allow your child to drink caffeinated drinks or large quantities of other fluids close to bedtime. Also, make a last minute bathroom visit as a regular part of their bedtime routine.

• Establish and keep to a regular and consistent bedtime routine. As with many other sleep disorders, sleepwalking episodes are often triggered by not getting enough sleep.

Most children require 9-11 hours of sleep each night so if your child isn’t getting enough sleep try moving their bedtime. Also try to keep your child’s bedtime and wakeup times consistent. You can also help your child relax and sleep better by making sure their bedroom is quiet and regulated at the same temperature each night.

• Identify stressors and help your child deal with them. Sleepwalking is often triggered by stressors such as taking certain medications, being overtired, feeling sick, or being nervous or upset about something. So keep a diary or encourage your child to keep a sleep journal so you can recognising those stressors or triggers so you can pre empt them and learn how to reduce the frequency of their sleepwalking episodes.

It’s helpful to remember that most children gradually outgrow sleepwalking, usually by the time they are teenagers..

What to do when you come upon your sleep walking child.

• Talk quietly and calmly so they may follow your instructions and return to bed easily and relaxed.

• If your child doesn’t seem upset when you touch them you should be able to lead themback to bed calmly. (It’s a good idea to stop at the bathroom too)

• Nothing will be gained by waking up your child, who is unlikely to remember the sleepwalking event in the morning particularly if they aren’t any distress.

• If your child wakes after the episode (which older children and adolescents commonly do), they will maybe embarrassed so don’t make any negative or teasing comments.

• Don’t make your child feel peculiar or strange.

• Treat the sleep walking in a matter-of-fact way.

As usual it’s ALL about how YOU handle this in your child’s life. So relax, be vigilant over their safety and keep the bigger picture and just keep an eye on why it may be happening at the moment.

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