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How can I stop my son's sleepwalking?

Asked by Elizabeth, Via e-mail

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My 11-year-old son sleepwalks about once a month. Last night he walked out of the house before waking up. What can I do to stop his sleepwalking from happening?

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Living Well Expert Dr. Jennifer Shu Pediatrician,
Children's Medical Group

Expert answer

Thank you for your question. Sleepwalking (also called "somnambulism") is most common during the preteen years and may affect 15 percent of children. It tends to run in families (for example, a child is 10 times more likely to sleepwalk if a first-degree relative such as a parent or a sibling also sleepwalks) and is most likely to occur early in the night, within a few hours of falling asleep. Most children outgrow their sleepwalking by the late teen years. In the meantime, here are some ways to deal with this nighttime behavior.

Sound an alarm. Safety is an obvious concern in this situation, so if you do not have an alarm system in your house to help keep your child inside, you may want to use an individual door alarm. Be sure that outdoor pools are fenced and locked, and consider putting gates at the top of any stairs near the bedroom to keep your child from wandering too far away. Because sleepwalking predictably happens about one to two hours after bedtime, it may also be helpful to set an alarm for your child to wake up about 45 minutes later (or if you're still awake, you can gently rouse him yourself). Waking a child briefly can reset the sleep cycle and often the sleepwalking will be skipped.

Guide your child back to bed. Gently encourage him to go to sleep. Even though the incidents may seem scary or strange to you, children do not remember sleepwalking if they do not wake up completely, so don't be surprised if your son has no memory of these episodes. This is true as well for night terrors, which look like nightmares in which the child's eyes are open, but he does not fully wake up. Night terrors may also involve some sleepwalking, but tend to occur earlier in the school-age years.

Earlier bedtime. Being overtired may trigger sleepwalking, night terrors and other sleep problems. Start your child's bedtime routine a half hour or so earlier than usual, even on weekends and during school vacations.

Reduce stress. If your child's sleepwalking might be caused by some stress in his life, try to address it. Get the help of a mental health expert such as a psychologist or psychiatrist if he needs it.

Medicate if you must. It may be possible to end sleepwalking for good by giving a bedtime dose of a benzodiazepine or other medication for about a month. Also consider whether it's possible to avoid other medicines that may affect sleep, including some antihistamine allergy remedies and stimulants taken for ADHD. For someone with infrequent episodes, however, it may be best just to wait, because the child will most likely outgrow them.

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