Do the sleepwalk

At my father’s home in Highland, Calif., there is a deadbolt set
high in the door, much the way doorknobs are situated in
pediatrician’s offices.
It’s been there since I was about 10 years old, when we realized
just how far my brother’s sleepwalking could go.
At my father’s home in Highland, Calif., there is a deadbolt set high in the door, much the way doorknobs are situated in pediatrician’s offices.

It’s been there since I was about 10 years old, when we realized just how far my brother’s sleepwalking could go.

The night before my dad installed it, Nick dreamed of a werewolf, running from room to room before he managed to open the front door, run down the steps and cross the street to pound on our neighbor’s door … in his sleep.

Sleepwalking, it turns out, is a common occurrence in children, but one that rarely continues past the age of 11 or 12, according to Dr. Harish Murthy, a physician trained in pulmonary and sleep medicine who practices in Gilroy.

The phenomenon, which can frighten both the child who sleepwalks and the parents who catch him or her at it, is a sleep disorder that falls under the blanket of parasomnias, or sleep disorders characterized by abnormal behavior or movements during sleep such as sleep talking.

“It’s seen when kids go from one stage of sleep to another,” said Murthy. “They seem to have a problem with slow wave sleep.”

Slow wave sleep, or a light stage of sleep, is one of the first stages of rest for children, followed later by REM, or deep wave, sleep. As a normal child transitions between these stages, the motor function shuts down, but for an unknown reason, children who sleepwalk don’t go through this process.

“For some reason their motor function just stays on,” said Murthy. “Most people just get up and walk a few steps, go back to bed and get to sleep. With kids, they look like they’re awake. They have their eyes open, but they have no memory of this.”

When children are very small – ages three and four – parents can easily scoop them up and carry them to back to bed or walk them back to their rooms, where they’ll most likely fall into a sound sleep, said Murthy.

However, older children – nearer to ages eight and nine – wake up more easily while being directed and often feel guilt or think that something is wrong with them for sleepwalking.

Murthy advises parents to reassure the child, hug them and let them know that sleepwalking is not a symptom of something bad going on. It’s hereditary.

“If fathers have it, the kids are 10 times more likely to have it,” said Murthy, who said the behavior can be observed in as much as 20 percent of the U.S. population and is most common in people of northern European descent. “The majority will grow out of it, but it’s rare for something like that to persist into the teen years. If the sleepwalking does persist, it can be a symptom of something more serious.”

Sleep apnea or other breathing disturbances can trigger sleepwalking in older patients, so if the condition continues to appear into the teen years, it’s time to see a doctor.

“The longer it persists, the more you get these Maury Povich kind of shows; ‘My brother got run over by a truck in his sleep!'” said Murthy.

If your child does sleepwalk, reduce their chances for sleep disturbance by maintaining the bedroom as a sleep-only area. Keep toys, video games, televisions, computers and other distractions out of the area and try to maintain quiet when your kiddo tucks in.

If they area a potential danger to themselves, lock the windows and, in extreme cases, consider installing a motion detector-triggered alarm on their door.

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