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Supporting Your Child Through Sleepwalking or Sleep Terrors

Sleepwalking and sleep terrors are two sleep problems that are common in children. And they can cause issues for parents, too.

If your child sleepwalks, you may worry that they will get hurt moving around without realizing what they are doing. You may even wonder if they might go outdoors without your knowledge. And it can be heartbreaking to try to comfort a child who is crying out in fear during a sleep terror episode. 

We connected with Daniel Combs, MD, a pediatric sleep medicine specialist with Banner – University Medicine, to learn more about these two sleep conditions. 

“Sleepwalking and night terrors are both situations where your brain partially wakes up from deep sleep. They are types of non-REM (rapid eye movement) sleep parasomnias, which are any type of unusual behavior that occurs during sleep,” Dr. Combs said.

The good news is that you can help your child manage their sleep issues – and get a better night’s rest for yourself. 

What to know about sleepwalking

Sleepwalking is a sleep disorder where you walk, sit up or get out of bed as if you’re awake, but you’re in deep sleep. It can happen once in a while or more frequently.

“Sleepwalking can occur in adults but is most common in school-age children. Parents may find their children in the middle of sleepwalking or may discover them sleeping in a different room in the morning,” Dr. Combs said.

If your child is sleepwalking, they might:

  • Walk, move around, try to perform daily tasks, open doors or rearrange furniture
  • Seem like they are dazed, confused or disoriented
  • Not respond when you talk to them
  • Not speak or speak in gibberish
  • Not wake up in response to bright lights or loud noises
  • Have a blank expression or a glassy-eyed look
  • Not have any memory of sleepwalking when they wake up

Children and adults are more likely to sleepwalk if they:

  • Have a close family member who has sleepwalked
  • Are not sleeping enough or getting good quality sleep
  • Are tired or stressed
  • Have a disrupted sleep schedule 
  • Are taking sedatives or hypnotics, or using alcohol or recreational drugs
  • Are sick, especially with a fever

Sleepwalking is not usually a cause for concern, but it could be due to an underlying condition (such as obstructive sleep apnea, restless legs syndrome or nighttime seizures) that’s waking your child up from deep sleep more than usual. If sleepwalking happens more than twice a week, or if you’re worried about injuries, talk to your child’s health care provider.

To manage sleepwalking, it’s helpful to keep a regular sleep schedule, create a safe environment for sleeping and reduce stress.

What to know about sleep (or night) terrors

Sleep terrors (also known as night terrors) aren’t as common as sleepwalking. They are intense episodes that strike during sleep. A child having a sleep terror might scream, thrash or cry inconsolably during deep stages of sleep, which can be distressing if you’re trying to help them. Night terrors usually happen during the first few hours of sleep and last from a few seconds to a few minutes, but sometimes longer. They can also occur in clusters. 

“Night terrors are typically terrifying to parents, who may be woken up by a screaming, inconsolable child,” Dr. Combs said. “But children do not remember the events and wake up in the morning like nothing happened.” 

They’re most common in children aged 3 to 8, which is when the central nervous system is still developing. Most kids outgrow sleep terrors by adolescence, but sometimes they continue into adulthood. 

With night terrors, your child could experience:

  • Sudden awakening
  • Rapid breathing and heartbeat
  • Sweating
  • Agitation or restless movements such as kicking or flailing
  • Difficulty in being consoled—they may not recognize you or acknowledge that you’re there
  • Little or no memory of the night terror

Night terrors are more likely in children that:

  • Are sleep deprived or have irregular sleep patterns
  • Have a close family member with a history of sleep terrors or other sleep disorders, since they may run in families
  • Are physically or emotionally stressed by illness, fever, anxiety or trauma
  • Have other sleep disorders (such as sleepwalking, restless leg syndrome or sleep apnea) which can disrupt your sleep cycle
  • Take sedatives or medication that affect the central nervous system
    • Drugs that are linked with night terrors include some antipsychotics (clozapine, olanzapine and risperidone), beta-blockers (labetalol, metoprolol or propranolol), calcium channel blockers (verapamil), antidepressants (bupropion, MAOIs, mirtazapine, SNRIs, SSRIs and TCAs), alcohol or recreational drugs

“For night terrors, trying to intervene usually doesn’t go well.  Parents can sit with their children if they want to do something, but trying to wake them usually doesn’t work. Night terrors are quite unpleasant as a parent, as your child may cry hysterically and get angry at you if you try to soothe them,” Dr. Combs said.

To make night terrors less likely, it is helpful to:

  • Have a calm bedtime routine, consistent sleep schedule and a comfortable environment for sleeping
  • Take steps to reduce your child’s stress or anxiety
  • Have your child take a late afternoon nap (if your child still takes naps)
  • Wake your child briefly 10 to 20 minutes before night terrors typically occur, if they happen at the same time every night

If night terrors are affecting your family’s sleep or daily life, your child is having more than two-night terrors per week or if a child is still having night terrors in adolescence, you should speak with your child’s health care provider. 

The difference between sleepwalking and sleep terrors

One of the biggest differences between night terrors and sleepwalking is the emotional impact on a family. “Sleepwalking is generally a fairly calm experience, while night terrors tend to be very disruptive to people other than the person having the night terror. Sleepwalkers can often be gently redirected, while children having night terrors are usually inconsolable and difficult to awaken,” Dr. Combs said.

Remember that your child is asleep and will not remember sleepwalking or night terrors in the morning.

The bottom line

While sleepwalking and night terrors can be scary for parents and disrupt a family’s sleep, they’re treatable conditions. If your child is sleepwalking or having sleep terrors more than twice a week, reach out to a sleep specialist at Banner Health for support and possible treatment.

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