What do we know?
Sleepwalking and night terrors are very similar problems. Both describe behaviours that occur during sleep.
Sleepwalkers appear to be awake. They get up from bed and walk around. Sometimes sleepwalkers engage in complex behaviours. Their actions can be very similar to things they would do in the daytime.
Night terrors involve screaming, thrashing and sometimes aggressive behaviour. During night terrors, children are asleep, but look awake.
Together, sleepwalking and night terrors are called parasomnias.
When do these sleep behaviours occur?
Both of these behaviours are linked to the non-rapid eye movement (non-REM) stage of sleep. There are four stages of non-REM sleep. During the deepest stage, brain wave activity (measured by an EEG) is at its slowest. It is very difficult to awaken someone during this stage of sleep. This is most often when sleepwalking and night terrors occur.
We cycle through our stages of sleep in a predictable pattern. As a result, sleepwalking and night terrors usually occur in the first four hours of sleep. Episodes can last for 5-15 minutes. However, we cycle through all stages of sleep several times each night, so these behaviours can occur at other times of the night as well.
Who experiences sleepwalking or night terrors?
Both sleepwalking and night terrors are most common in children age 4-12 years old. They are much less common in teens and adults.
As well, family history is a good predictor of these behaviours. They are much more common if someone else in the family had night terrors or was a sleepwalker as a child.
What are treatable triggers of sleepwalking and night terrors?
Sleep apnea: This is one of the most common causes of sleep-disordered breathing (SDB), often related to enlarged tonsils, adenoids or turbinates (the inner lining of the nose).
GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease)
sleeping in an unfamiliar environment
What are the symptoms of sleepwalking and night terrors?
Sleepwalkers often arise from bed, walk around, and return to bed. They typically look sleepy and not alert, and are usually clumsy. However, they can do complex tasks that are very similar to things they would normally do during the daytime including:
drinking a glass of water, milk or juice from the frig
opening doors, including unfastening locks
Children with night terrors appear to have very vivid experiences. They are not easily responsive to parents and caregivers. During night terrors, children may:
scream, shout or cry
sit up in bed, kick and thrash
sweat, breathe heavily and have a very rapid heart rate
be confused if they awaken
How can you help your child?
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