Sleepwalking child: what’s really happening?

January 31, 2024

When you see a sleepwalking child, you are witnessing a particular behavioral phase of sleep that occurs mainly during the NREM phase, where sleep is much deeper than during the rest of the night.

It is a prevalent condition in children and infants, so much so that it is estimated that one in three has experienced sleepwalking at least once. It is not a sleep terror or so-called pavor.

What is a sleepwalking child?

It is defined as parasomnia, which is abnormal motor behavior that develops during sleep, including waking and falling asleep phases (such as sleep talking, confusional awakenings, and night terrors).

While it is a source of much concern for parents, it does not fall within the range of sleep disorders; new research trends place infantile sleepwalking in a real phase of a child’s growth, certainly not to be underestimated, but at the same time to be experienced with more peace of mind than in years past.

What does a sleepwalking child do?

A sleepwalking child performs an indistinct series of operations in his sleep: he may, for example, get out of bed, talk or make unintelligible sounds, and even sing and walk around the bedroom.

In some cases, sleepwalkers may also perform everyday actions, such as moving from one room to another or opening doors, turning on the television, and other appliances, in short, performing the typical actions that are performed during the day.
All of these actions do not have a fixed duration; they certainly do not last the whole night and are concentrated in the deepest stage of sleep, but it is impossible to specify precisely the total time of sleepwalking.

In general, however, it can be said that on average in children sleepwalking can last approximately 30 minutes and no longer.

Why does one suffer from sleepwalking?

The causes of sleepwalking children can be found in various factors, first and foremost a genetic predisposition.

It has been shown in recent studies that if both parents have had cases of childhood sleepwalking, then the little one will have a 60% chance of experiencing the same problem.

Other triggers can be found in everyday life: for example, periods of high stress for the child, resulting in psychological discomfort that leads the brain to reprocess during sleep what was experienced during the day, or simply high fever and various infectious diseases.

In addition, some triggers may relate to respiratory difficulties, such as enlarged tonsils and adenoids, resulting in sleep apnea and unrestful sleep.

Sleepwalking concerns the most hidden self of children and the least understood part of the brain, so it remains a subject of constant study and research to this day.

Why should sleepwalkers not be awakened?

During sleepwalking, one is not awake.

Or at least only a part of the brain that reprocesses information is awake, but the rest of the body continues to sleep.

It is a true dissociation of the brain, in which one part remains active while the other does not.

Specifically, the areas that become active are those more related to emotionality, while the more rational ones remain asleep.
For this reason, even if the sleepwalker’s eyes are open, he or she should be considered as sleeping.
Therefore, it is necessary to avoid waking the child abruptly. Still, it will be necessary to indulge him and accompany him gently and very quietly to his bed, where he can resume sleep.

The real problem regarding infant sleepwalking does not concern brain activity, but the dangers that the child may run into during night walks, such as obstacles that may cause him to stumble.

How to tell if he is sleepwalking?

Sleepwalking therefore is considered natural, a common step in a child’s development, but in some cases, it is a good idea to consult the pediatrician if there are special conditions.

For example, if it is repeated more than twice a week, or if several episodes are noticed in the same night.

Or by carefully evaluating the child’s daily routine, observing the possible presence of a state of generalized agitation and anxiety, or coexistence with other disorders such as enuresis.

In such cases, the neuropsychiatrist may prescribe an instrumental examination to record brain cell activity during sleep.

This is usually done using a simple wrist sensor, much like a smartwatch, which will record all the brain data and then analyze it.

The pediatrician in each case will know how to evaluate and possibly take specific measures in case of mental discomfort in the child, but it should still be emphasized that for standard sleepwalking there is no therapy and that it is a benign developmental stage that will tend to resolve on its own on its own.

How to avoid nighttime awakenings?

The real danger of sleepwalking therefore concerns motor safety; it is necessary to try not to leave behind any obstacles (such as toys or clothing) that could be the cause of falls or stumbles on the part of the child.

Another important factor in avoiding night awakenings is the creation of adequate sleep hygiene.

To ensure a peaceful sleep, one should try to maintain a constant duration, creating a routine and systematic habit regarding bedtime and waking up.

The nursery should also be a comfortable place, without light and electronic pollution, to promote tranquility and relaxation.

In addition, the standard rules that underlie children’s well-being apply, such as avoiding exciting foods and drinks, challenging and stimulating activities such as video games before bedtime, as well as various light displays (PCs, tablets, portable consoles).

Sleepwalking should not worry parents unduly: proper sleep hygiene and an appropriate lifestyle that encourages outdoor games and activities while limiting electronic devices will allow the child to have a peaceful sleep, and any episodes of sleepwalking will be exclusively part of the child’s growth.

We are with you.

We at Parentalife care about your child’s sleep, but we also care about your sleep. It is truly one of our biggest priorities.

We have created MAMISleep, already used by more than 11,000 families, that will allow you to incorporate good ways for your child to fall asleep and fall back asleep, with total respect for his or her physiological awakenings and your daily routine.

SOURCES

Petit D, Pennestri MH, Paquet J, Desautels A, Zadra A, Vitaro F, Tremblay RE, Boivin M, Montplaisir J. Childhood Sleepwalking and Sleep Terrors: A Longitudinal Study of Prevalence and Familial Aggregation. JAMA Pediatr. 2015 Jul;169(7):653-8. doi: 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2015.127. PMID: 25938617.

About the Author

Severino Cirillo

Health, Wellness and Education Expert. With a degree in Community Health, he is the CEO of Informed Parent and is responsible for validating the blog's scientific information and coordinating the editorial team of experts, consisting of gynecologists, midwives, psychotherapists, and others in pregnancy, perinatal, and parenting wellness and health.