Sleep terrors in early childhood may lead to sleepwalking later

A calming ritual at bedtime can help to cope with a child's sleep terrors, a pediatrician says.

Story highlights

  • One third of children who have sleep terrors become sleepwalkers, study says
  • If you walked in your sleep as a child, your child is likely to do the same, it says
  • Children with parents who sleepwalked more likely to have persistent sleep terrors

(CNN)Does your little one suffer from sleep terrors? Then get ready to lock the window and doors, because they might soon sleepwalk, too. A study of nearly 2,000 children in Quebec over a 12-year period found that as many as a third of the children who had early childhood sleep terrors became sleepwalkers later.

"That's interesting because it can help parents know that 'Hey, if my little one has sleep terrors, and several of them, then perhaps he or she might be more at risk for sleepwalking when they are between the age of 10 and 13," said Hansa Bhargava, a pediatrician with Children's Healthcare of Atlanta.
And if you were a sleepwalker in your childhood, then your child is likely to be one, too. The study, conducted by Montreal's Center for Advanced Research in Sleep Medicine and published in JAMA Pediatrics, found 47.4% of children with one sleepwalking parent took nighttime strolls. When both parents had a history of sleepwalking, the number rose to 61.5%.
    "It's definitely genetic," Bhargava said. "Prevention is really the cure in these situations. You want to make sure the child is not overtired, stressed out, over-scheduled. And have a nice calming ritual at bedtime so the child can actually calm himself down before going to sleep."

    'Monsters' or sleep terrors?

    "A sleep terror is not a monster under the bed, although it's so scary for parents that it can seem like that at the time," Bhargava said. "What happens is that the child wakes up screaming, crying, terrified and may not even recognize you or remember what happened. It's a frightening experience, both for the child and the parent."
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    In the study, most sleep terrors occurred between ages 36 months and 5 years old, but they can happen all the way to age 13. For some children they can be transient -- defined in the study as having terrors before age 4 but none after. Others have persistent terrors -- continuing after age 5. The study found twice as many children with a parental history of sleepwalking had persistent sleep terrors.
    "It's not the child's fault; don't yell at them or feel like they are not talking to you," Bhargava advised. "Just be there to calm the child and get them to go back to sleep."

    Triggers and precautions

    According to Bhargava, children will be at the highest risk for a sleep terror if they are sick, or about to become sick, haven't been getting enough sleep or are stressed or in a noisy environment.
    The same is true for sleepwalking.
    "The message is the same," Bhargava said. "Look at the child's life, see where the stress might be adding up, and reduce that. Take those cell phones away, take the technology away and make sure they adhere to a good bedtime."
    Sleepwalking, also called somnambulism, usually occurs during the deeper stages of sleep, stages 3 and 4, when it's harder to wake up. While most sleepwalkers outgrow it by the teen years, some never stop or have relapses during adulthood.
    Sleepwalking can be anything from sitting up in bed, to getting up and taking a few steps before going back to sleep, to opening up the closet door and urinating in it. It can even lead to leaving the house, Bhargava said.
    "It can be really scary to a parent when their child does this," she said. "They may be very groggy, may not know what they are doing. Again, know that your child is in a deep sleep and just lead them back to bed."
    And it's a good idea to sleepwalk-proof the house, by removing sharp or breakable things, not using a bunk bed and placing safety gates on stairs.
    "Could they fall down the stairs? Sure," Bhargava said. "It can be very dangerous. It's also good to be sure the house and windows are locked, and the alarm is on. And take precautions so they don't trip over clutter. Those things can happen, and it's good to be mindful of that."