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Sleepwalking (somnambulance) is when a child partly wakes from their sleep and walks around, yet they are still asleep. Almost one third of children will sleepwalk at some stage. Sleepwalking commonly occurs between the ages of four and eight years, and children usually outgrow it.
Sleepwalking occurs in healthy children, and it is not usually related to significant emotional or psychological problems. It most commonly occurs in the late evening (the first stages of sleep).
If your child sleepwalks, make sure that your home is safe and secure and that your child has a regular sleep routine.
If your child sleepwalks, they get up out of bed and walk around their room or the house. Younger children tend to walk towards a parent or light source. A very young child may wander around their cot. Occasionally, children can let themselves out of the house and can
wander around outside.
Even though your child is really asleep, they can carry out simple tasks such as changing clothes or rearranging furniture. Some children may urinate (wee) in strange places, such as cupboards or on the floor.
Your child's eyes will be open, but they will usually have a glazed appearance. When your child is sleepwalking, they won't recognise you. They may have a conversation, although it usually doesn't make much sense.
Occasionally, children can become quite agitated and upset during a sleepwalking episode. Your child will have no memory of the sleepwalking episode in the morning.
If your child is sleepwalking, they are essentially stuck halfway between being asleep and awake. A few hours after falling asleep, children move from a deep sleep to light sleep. It is at this stage your child can get stuck. They wake up enough to get out of bed, talk and have their
eyes open, but they are asleep in that they do not respond to you trying to interact with them.
Sleepwalking episodes may become worse with illness and fevers, or if your child becomes very worried about something. If your child is overtired, they may be more likely to sleepwalk. Often there is a family history of night terrors or sleepwalking. Significant emotional or
psychological problems do not usually cause sleepwalking.
Sleepwalking does not have any long-term effects. Most children grow out of it as their sleep patterns mature. To safely manage your child's sleepwalking:
If your child is going away overnight on camp or to a friend's place, tell the caregivers that your child might sleepwalk so they can be prepared. Give them a copy of this fact sheet. Try to make sure your child has had plenty of sleep before going away, to reduce the chance of
them sleepwalking due to being overtired.
You may need to see your GP for advice or treatment if:
Should I wake my child when they are sleepwalking?
Do not try to wake your child while they are sleepwalking – or sleeptalking. Don't try to hold them down or restrict them in any way, unless they are in danger. The best way to manage sleepwalking is to gently guide them back to their own bed.
I'm worried about my child sleepwalking on school camp.
Would sleeping tablets help him sleep better and avoid him sleepwalking?
There are better treatment options than sleeping medications. One very effective treatment is called 'scheduled awakening' which works in a similar way to treating night terrors (see our
Night terrors fact sheet). You should wake your child during their normal sleep, at pre-determined times to try to 'break the cycle' of sleepwalking. If you're very worried and your child's sleep is a big problem, and your child's sleep hygiene and bedtime routines are as good as they can be, melatonin may be a
suitable option for your child. Discuss these treatment options with your child's doctor.
Developed in consultation with the Melbourne Children's Sleep Unit. We acknowledge the input of RCH consumers and carers.
Reviewed May 2018.
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