If your child is a sleep walker, it can be quite disturbing to see them in what can often be a distressed state. Sleep walking disorder (also known as somnambulism) occurs in approximately 15% of the child population. It is a series of complex behaviours that are initiated during slow wave sleep and results in the child getting up and walking around. It occurs during the rapid eye movement (REM) phase of sleep, which is also the dream stage of sleep. This disorder is often accompanied by vivid and frightening hallucinations, as the sleeper brings his/her dreams with them into the waking world. These can also be referred to as sleep or night terrors and are believed to be far more common than figures actually suggest. These terrors are displayed as a result of “confusional arousals” from sleep, where the child will be partially awake - yet deeply asleep - both at the same time! They apparently believe they have somewhere to go, something to do, or someone to meet. In some of the more extreme cases they can lead to a frantic attempt to escape as if threatened. They will have glassy eyes, pick at the duvet, make obscure body movements and walk around the house blankly. Sleep walkers may also avoid looking at another person who attempts to communicate with them. The child may be only troubled by a mild form of sleep walking/night terrors, in which case you’ll probably see that they simply sit up in bed and look around the room with a blank or confused expression, before returning to sleep. Child sleep walking is more frequent among boys and peaks in children aged 6 to 12. Parents should remove anything from the bedroom that could be hazardous or harmful to a child that is prone to sleep walking. A sleep walker usually remember little to nothing of the nights events and this can lead to the child feeling embarrassment, anxiety and confusion when they are told about their behaviour. Emotional support is essential, therefore a parent should never make their child feel in any way ashamed about their episodes. Shouting at them, or attempting to awaken them through shaking will only enhance any panic they may already be experiencing and could have a damaging effect. Gentle persuasion and guidance are far more advisable. It is thought that a full bladder may act as one of the sleep walking causes, and it does have some credibility, so fluids should be restricted before bedtime, ensuring that they use the toilet also. Watching TV in the bedroom immediately before falling asleep has some statistical backing as another source of the sleep walking/night terrors, so a happy medium probably needs to be found. Crucially, it should be remembered that, for the most part, child sleep walking is outgrown before puberty, so the key is to do what should come naturally anyway; that is provide love, support and understanding for the child.
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Mick Burrows writes for www.sleep-walking-why.com
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