Many parents consider it a victory when they get their children to fall asleep at a reasonable hour. But what happens overnight can sometimes be a bigger battle. From voices piercing the darkness with blood-curdling screams, to footsteps wandering around the house at night, sleep problems can become a nightmare for the entire family.
According to the National Sleep Foundation’s Sleep in America Poll, 1% of preschool children and 2% of school-aged children walk in their sleep at least a few nights per week.
Diane Strunk-Nimmo from Goshen, Ohio, has experienced sleep problems with both of her sons, ages 12 and 14. “We still have to make sure there are no obstacles or trip and fall hazards at night,” she says. “We double-lock doors and windows to prevent them from getting out of the house.”
Sabrina Poole from Anderson Township says her 8 year-old daughter Kendall had sleepwalking episodes at least once a week for a few years. “She would end up in my bathroom or hers and she was always babbling about something,” recalls Poole. “She never remembered it the next day and usually fell right back to sleep.”
Sleepwalking is just one form of parasomnia, a broad term for unusual behaviors that occur during sleep. According to Dr. Junaid Malik with the Bethesda Sleep Center, these behaviors typically occur during the deepest phase of non-REM sleep. “When it comes out of the early part of the night, it’s usually a parasomnia,” Dr. Malik explains. “When it comes out of the later part of sleep, it’s an REM sleep disorder.”
Night terrors and nightmares
Night terrors often go hand-in-hand with sleepwalking tendencies, and both problems tend to run in families. The child usually screams in terror from bed, but doesn’t respond to efforts to comfort them.
Poole says her son Liam’s night terrors were even tougher to deal with than her daughter’s sleepwalking, because he was just two years old and couldn’t tell her why he was so upset. “It took longer for him to calm down,” she says. “Sometimes he would even end up sleeping in my bed if I was just too tired.”
Unlike nightmares, night terrors happen during a non-REM sleep phase. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to awaken your child during this phase. “They’re actually in a form of sleep that’s very deep,” explains Dr. Malik. “So they tend not to wake up.”
In regards to nightmares, Mary Jo Heyen, a member of the Association of Dreamwork Practitioners, says letting children talk about their scary dreams is an important way to help diffuse their fears. “In speaking about it, repeating it, [this] helps take some of the charge away. To tell them it isn’t real may not help,” she says. “For the dreamer, in a scary moment, it’s very real. The act of listening to them validates their feelings.”
Dr. Malik says it’s best not to try to awaken your child if they are sleepwalking or having a night terror. Simply redirect them back to bed or help them lie back down, and they will usually fall into a more restful sleep. But with sleepwalkers, parents need to take steps to prevent the child from getting hurt. “Be sure you have safety features in the house such as locks on doors that are above the child’s height so they can’t reach it,” he advises. “Make sure the windows are always locked in the bedroom.” He says you should also remove any sharp objects from their room, and not leave any glassware in places where it could get knocked over.
The good news is, sleep experts say kids usually outgrow these issues by their teens. You can help prevent these problems by avoiding triggers such as overtiredness, noises and light. If your child’s sleep problems are happening nightly, or affecting their behavior and alertness during the day, Dr. Malik says that’s the time to seek help from a doctor. Strunk-Nimmo says that was helpful to her. “Doctors can and will listen,” she says. “The best advice I would have for other parents is to know you and your child are not alone.”