Do you or your children sleep walk?
Here’s a summary of my advice on managing sleep walking.
You can also view me helping a young client live on ITV’s Daybreak here:
Definition: Sleep walking is part of a group of sleep disorders known as parasomnias, which include any abnormal sleep behaviour, emotion and/or dream that occur during the night. It typically occurs in the first third of the night and because of an arousal from deep sleep or the transition from one sleep stage to another.
Sleep walking is typically associated with an individual sitting up in bed or walking around doing basic tasks. Despite their eyes being open they are still asleep and will have a dazed or unfocused expression on their face. They might chatter to themselves or respond to certain questions, but normally they do not make any sense. Events typically last for 10 minutes or so and then they might return back to their beds. If they are woken or wake up naturally during a walk they may appear confused for some time. Sleep walking is completely harmless and typically the individual will not remember anything in the morning.
Prevalence: Sleeping walking is most prevalent during childhood, with up to 20% being affected. Most children grow out of it as their sleep cycle matures and it is generally not considered to be a sign of emotional or psychological distress. Sleep walking can occur into adulthood, although it is typically less than 4% of population. A greater risk exists if there is a family history and it is also linked to sleep deprivation, excessive tiredness, fever, stress, drinking too much alcohol or taking certain drugs.
Treatments: There is no real cure for sleep walking and so most advice is based around prevention.
Be well rested – excessive tiredness increases the amount of deep sleep we experience and therefore increases the possibility of such events occurring. Being well rested and having a regular sleeping pattern that ensures good quality sleep can help to lower the frequency of sleep walking. It can be helpful to rule out other sleep disorders such as sleep apnoea (stopping breathing at night) and restless legs syndrome, which could be disturbing sleep and causing excessive tiredness.
Safe sleeping environment – the most important thing to do is to ensure that the sleeping environment is safe and injury free. Do this by removing dangerous items, closing windows and locking doors. If the walker has a habit of performing more complex tasks such as cooking or driving then care should be taken to prevent these activities from occurring.
Don’t wake them up – the best thing to do with a sleep walker is to guide them slowly and safely back to their bed. Waking them up can often result in them being confused or frightened.
Break the cycle – If sleep walking occur at a specific time every night, then it can be helpful to fully wake the individual up 20 minutes before the event to break the cycle and then allow them to fall back to sleep. Combining it with a quick trip to toilet will also help as a full bladder can trigger sleep walking. Following this pattern for 1-2 week has been shown to help reduce the frequency of sleep walking episodes and even stop them from occurring altogether.
Manage stress – if a child or adult is experiencing anxiety or stress then it can trigger more sleep walking to occur. As a result learning to be calm and relaxed during the day and not bottling your worries up inside can help to reduce the frequency. Talking about your problems to a family member, friend or seeing a counsellor or psychotherapist can help to manage stress more effectively.
Alcohol – drinking alcohol promotes sleep walking by disturbing the quality of sleep and therefore increasing tiredness, as well unhelpfully changing the structure of sleep. Limiting or avoiding alcohol can be very helpful in reducing the frequency of sleep walking events.
Medications – if you are taking prescribed medication it can be helpful to check with your doctor to make sure that such nocturnal events are not the result of an unwanted side affect.
If your sleep walking activities are endangering your life or then it is advised that you visit your doctor and be referred to a sleep specialist for further help.
Wishing you the best of sleep,
Dr Guy Meadows