© 2011 Roy Benaroch, MD
Gretchen wants to know more about sleepwalking: “My 5 year old daughter has been sleep walking more frequently lately – a few weeks ago she went to the bathroom, washed her hands and left the faucet running (flooding the bathroom and the downstairs bathroom as well)! Happened again last night and this time she was found on the first floor couch — water in bathroom running again (this time my husband caught it before any damage). Her bedroom is on the 2nd floor and we have a baby gate at the top of the stairs. I’m concerned that she may decide to venture outside while asleep. Any advice?”
Sleepwalking (and I apologize in advance for using fancy-pants doctor language here) is one of those kooky, mostly harmless things kids do. Like playing with water balloons and hanging their heads backwards off the couch to see what the world looks like upside-down*, sleepwalking is something that parents pretty much have to put up with until their children either outgrow it or don’t.
Along with other parasomnias (these include night terrors and periodic leg movements), sleepwalking usually occurs in the first several hours of night-time sleep, when sleep cycles are the deepest. They rarely occur during naps. Sometimes, there’s a family history of sleepwalking. Episodes seem to be more frequent if a child is especially tired, or sometimes if regular sleep schedules are disrupted.
During a sleepwalk, children aren’t really awake. Their eyes will be open but glassy, and though they’ll usually walk around obstacles they won’t be able to perform complex tasks—so locking exterior doors and putting the key on a separate shelf will prevent them from unlocking the door for a stroll outside. Sleepwalkers will often do automatic, memorized tasks, but in a strange sort of way—like urinating into a trashcan, or emptying out utensils from a drawer. As with Gretchen’s daughter, they might turn on the water to wash their hands, but won’t turn it back off. They’re going through motions that their mind knows how to do, but not in a genuinely purposeful manner. Weird!
Parents do need to ensure that sleepwalking kids stay safe, and that includes being careful while on vacation or at grandma’s. Exterior doors should be locked and keys placed elsewhere. Doors that lead to stairs should be closed. You can also put bells on doors to wake the family up during a stroll (bells probably will not wake a sleepwalker.) If you find your child sleepwalking, gently guide them back to bed. Contrary to myths, it’s not dangerous to wake a sleepwalker, but it can be upsetting for the child.
One idea that sometimes works to prevent a sleepwalking episode: if your child tends to sleepwalk at a certain time of night, gently nudge her half-awake 20 minutes before that set time. That throws a monkey wrench into their sleep cycle, and may prevent the sleepwalk for the next few nights. Rarely, medications can be given to stop sleepwalking, which may be necessary if a child would otherwise get hurt.
Sleepwalks are kind of strange, but (to borrow from Douglas Adams) mostly harmless. In Gretchen’s case, her daughter’s meanderings did lead to a flooded basement, which will make a good story for the grandkids one day. If you’ve got a sleepwalking child, take a few steps to make sure that Junior is safe—and think about investing in a cheap water detecting alarm for the basement. That’ll alert you to those indoor water-balloon incidents, too!
*I’ve tried this. It looks upside-down. Go, do it yourself, and report your findings back here.