Scientists long believed that the human brain could only be in one of three states at any given time: awake, rapid eye movement (REM) sleep or non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep. However, according to the latest research on sleepwalking, the brain can be in two states at once.
When a child has a sleepwalking or night terror episode, their brain is stuck between being awake and in deep sleep. An EEG revealing the brain waves of a child in such a state would show a combination of patterns seen in both the awake and sleep states.
Although mixed-up brain waves may sound concerning, these events are quite common in young children and tend to disappear as they get older. Let’s discuss the main things parents should know about sleepwalking and night terrors.
The Basics of Sleepwalking and Night Terrors in Children
What do these events look like? During sleepwalking, a child will leave their bed and may appear awake. They may walk from room to room with relative ease. But they are not typically aware of their immediate surroundings and the people around them.
In the case of night terrors, also known as sleep terrors, a child will have eyes open, look terrified and typically scream or cry out. They also will not be aware of their surroundings and won’t recognize caregivers. In fact, they may try to fight off any help during the event.
Both sleepwalking and night terrors tend to occur during the deeper stages of sleep, which children spend more time in during the first third of the night. Therefore, these events will occur more commonly within the first few hours after falling asleep.
It is important to differentiate between night terrors from nightmares. Unlike night terrors, nightmares tend to occur in the latter half of the night and may cause a child to wake up fully. The child may seem distressed by the dream, but is well aware of their surroundings and able to communicate with caregivers.
What Causes Sleepwalking and Night Terrors?
Although the exact cause of these events is usually unclear, we do know that anything that increases deep sleep can make them worse. The most common cause of increased deep sleep in children is sleep deprivation.
We also know that anything leading to more arousal or small awakenings from sleep can also cause sleepwalking or night terrors. This can include noise in the environment, such as a phone ringing or a loud car passing by, or internal factors such as gastroesophageal reflux, sleep apnea or even eczema.
What Can Parents and Caregivers Do?
- Be reassured. In most cases, sleepwalking and night terrors in children are benign and will improve as the child ages. Keep in mind that they are not triggered by stress or psychiatric disturbances.
- Maintain safety. Ensure your child's sleep environment is safe. Cover sharp corners, lock easily opened windows and secure heavy objects in the child’s room.
- Guide them back to bed. Gently guide a sleepwalking child back into the bed without waking them. In the case of night terrors, stay nearby and speak soothingly, but do not try to intervene. Typically children will fall back to sleep and awake the next day unaware that the event took place. Avoid the temptation to forcefully wake the child, as this can prolong the event or cause the child to become confused or scared upon awakening.
- Keep them well-rested. Help your child get a good night of sleep each night to prevent sleep deprivation. Tips on good sleep hygiene practices include regular sleep and wake times, bedtime routines and reduced use of screens before bed.
Are These Events Common? Are They Hereditary?
Research has shown that sleepwalking and night terrors are common in children. As many as 40% of children experience night terrors. While only 5% of children sleepwalk, they do it at a rate three times higher than adults do. If your child suffers from either of these, you are certainly not alone.
There does appear to be a genetic predisposition toward sleepwalking and night terrors. A 2015 study found that the likelihood of a child sleepwalking rises rapidly if one or both of their parents have a history of sleepwalking. Studies on identical twins support the conclusion that night terrors are also hereditary. There also seems to be a connection between night terrors and sleepwalking. The 2015 study found that one-third of children who experience night terrors in early childhood go on to sleepwalk later in childhood.
Although sleepwalking and night terrors might seem concerning, they are typically not a reason to be worried and over time are likely to improve. However, speak with your doctor if you suspect an underlying medical disorder is disrupting your child’s sleep and provoking these events.