One night, when Briana Silva* was five, her parents found her sitting on the toilet in the middle of the night, fully clothed but totally out of it. “It was actually an ‘aha’ moment,” says Briana’s mom, Susan Silva.*
Briana had also been wandering into her parents’ room a lot after bedtime. After the bathroom incident, the Silvas realized Briana was sleepwalking, not disobeying the rules about staying in her own bed. “Sleepwalking runs in our family, so it made sense,” Silva says.
The North Vancouver parents now wait for the telltale noises from upstairs each night. Sometimes they’ll find Briana pulling clothes from her closet, pacing the floor, trying to walk into the playroom or crying. On their doctor’s advice, they lead her back to bed without waking her.
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Sleepwalking in kids usually starts around age three or four. “Ten percent of children younger than six sleepwalk,” says Shelly Weiss, a neurologist at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto and president of The Canadian Sleep Society. “As long as it’s happening infrequently, and usually during the first third of the night, they’ll probably outgrow it by age seven.”
Weiss explains that sleepwalking typically begins a few hours after bedtime, because it’s concurrent with stage three of non-REM sleep, when your body can move around without waking up. (By contrast, night terrors happen during REM, or dream sleep.)
Sleepwalking usually occurs after a child is roused by an external trigger, such as a noise in the house, or an internal trigger, like passing gas in his or her sleep. (Funny but true, says Weiss.) Sometimes an episode will begin for no reason at all. Stuck between deep sleep and being awake, somnambulant children can move their muscles, walk around in a daze and even talk. Some kids may find themselves disoriented and in embarrassing situations, like peeing in a closet or corner of the room instead of making it to the bathroom.
The real concern is that sleepwalkers might hurt themselves. “Everyone who sleepwalks, children and adults alike, are in some danger,” Weiss says. “They’re not awake, so they don’t know what’s safe or unsafe.” Never lock a child in his or her room (it’s a fire hazard), but parents should have some kind of alert system. Install an electronic alarm on the bedroom door, or tie a bell to the doorknob. Lock the front door of your home, along with bedroom windows and drawers containing any hazards.
If you find your child sleepwalking, gently lead her back to bed. You don’t need to mention it the next day.
“Kids won’t remember it, and they might get anxious when they try to sleep the next night,” says Jennifer Garden, a registered occupational therapist who lives in Vancouver, and the founder of Sleep Dreams, a network of occupational therapists specializing in slumber. If your child has concerns about sleepwalking, save the discussion for when she’s calm (not in the wee hours).
Consult your doctor, says Weiss, if your preschooler has multiple episodes per night or starts sleepwalking out of the blue when she’s older, around age seven or eight. (In these cases, it could be linked to underlying issues such as sleep apnea, anxiety or depression.)
Briana is avoiding sleepovers for now, and her parents are keeping a mattress on their bedroom floor for her. “She comes in here at night and just tucks herself in,” says Silva.
* Some names have been changed
A version of this article appeared in our February 2014 issue with the headline “Drifting off”, p. 43.