Adam was an 8 year old boy whose parents brought him in for a sleep evaluation because he had actually walked right out of his home in the middle of the night and had been found by his neighbors three doors down. His family was terrified that he would do it again and wanted to know how to keep him safe. They also wanted to know whether he had a sleep disorder that required medical treatment.
Sleepwalking is a normal part of childhood. Up to 40% of children sleepwalk at some point and, most of the time, this behavior disappears by puberty. A recent study surveyed parents of 1800 children in Australia and their parents noted that 10% percent of these children (ages 5-10 years old) had sleepwalked just in the previous week.
If your child sleepwalks, your most important job as a parent is providing a safe environment. You must have a way to be immediately aware that your child is “on the move” at night. Some parents use a motion sensor with an alarm on their child’s bedroom door. However, I recommend a bed alarm. A bed alarm consists of a pad that is placed under the fitted sheet of your child’s bed just where your child’s back would be when he or she is asleep. The pad is connected to an alarm by a cord that is usually a few feet long. This cord and alarm can be placed under your child’s bed, hung on the headboard or mounted on the wall. When your child leaves the bed, the alarm will sound to alert you. You can then come to your child room, silence the alarm, help your child back to bed, and reset the alarm each time this behavior occurs. You can put a baby monitor in the master bedroom to make sure that you hear the bed alarm.
I recommend this type of alarm because it can go wherever your child goes. Your child is especially at risk of sleepwalking while on a sleepover, in a hotel, at summer camp, at a relative’s home, or anytime he or she sleeps away from home in a new environment. You will need to be sure that any adults who will be responsible for your child know exactly how to use this alarm.
Other home safety measures are recommended as well. You will also want to install gates (especially at the top of any stairways); add night lights around the bedroom, hallway and home; alarm and secure all exit doors and windows, and perhaps install high deadbolts on all exit doors as well. You will also want to keep floors and hallways clutter-free.
When you intercept your sleepwalking child, just guide him or her back to bed. Don’t try to wake your child since this can be more distressing for your child. It’s not really necessary to talk with your child about the sleepwalking episode the next day since he or she will be unaware of it. Talking about these episodes too much may make your child feel embarrassed, or may even make your child frightened about going to bed.
What else can you do?
Try scheduled awakenings. Track the time that your child sleepwalks for a couple of weeks and, if it often occurs at the same time, try going to your child’s bed about 15 minutes prior to the usual episode. Gently rouse your child by speaking his or her name in a soft voice until your child flutters his or her eyelids or changes position, and then gently encourage him or her to drop right back off to sleep.
Take an inventory of your child’s room at the time that he or she often sleepwalks. Is there a noise that occurs right around that time? Perhaps there is a neighbor that arrives home from a late shift and slams a car door, for example? Does a pet jump onto or off of your child’s bed at that time of night? Is the sleepwalking episode tied to a time when your child might need to urinate? Be sure you’ve addressed all of these causes, and feel free to add a fan or white noise machine to your child’s room to mask ambient noises in the home or neighborhood.
Treat bed wetting if your child is still wetting the bed after age seven. Some children sleepwalk when their bladder is too full at night. Please see my blog post on treating bed wetting in older children for more information.
Make sure your child is getting enough sleep and that your child can fall asleep independently. Sleepwalking is much more common in sleep-deprived children and in those with inconsistent sleep schedules. It’s also more common in children who require a lot of time to fall asleep at bedtime. Finally, it’s more often seen in children who need a parent nearby in order to fall asleep and whose parent leaves once the child is asleep. All children wake up during the night and, if there is something missing, such as the presence of a parent who was there at bedtime, this can trigger a sleepwalking episode.
Have more questions about sleepwalking or need help teaching your child to fall asleep without you nearby? Please contact me via phone or email for more personalized help.