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How Common is Sleep Walking in Children?

18/04/2013 | Room to Grow, Sleep | by Catherine Godiva

If you are the parent of a young child then it is possible that you have seen them sleepwalking as the disorder, technically called somnambulism, affects approximately 15% of the population, the vast majority of who are young children and teenagers. While sleepwalking may not be inherently dangerous as it is very infrequently coupled with violence, a child (or adult) could certainly hurt himself while sleepwalking much easier than if they were awake and for that reason it is something to be taken seriously.

When a person is sleepwalking you are seeing the effects of a number of complex behaviors that originated during what scientists call slow–wave sleep. At the heart of the problem is a chemical that is released during REM or rapid eye movement sleep. A normal person will see the release of this chemical which causes the body to be what can only be described as ‘paralyzed’, thus keeping a person  in one place while they are sleeping.

A person who for some reason does not have this chemical trigger, either because they are too young or possibly because they are suffering from the effects of alcohol or drug addiction, will not get the paralyzing chemical and is thus prone to suffering from sleepwalking.

When a person is sleepwalking it is possible for them to perform a variety of different tasks that, to the casual observer, would seem to suggest that they were fully awake. Tasks such as walking, getting dressed and even going for a drive in the family car have been observed while someone is sleepwalking. This of course is in direct contrast to normal REM sleep and the dreams that usually come with it.

Interestingly enough, it is rather difficult to wake someone who is sleepwalking whereas a person who is sleeping normally can usually be awakened quite easily. Although once thought to be entirely psychological sleepwalking is now understood to be a combination of several factors including psychological, physiological and even chemical interference. The trigger for sleepwalking can vary with age also and, from what scientists have seen, the cause for most young sufferers is physiological and something that they normally will grow out of. Adult sufferers of sleepwalking are usually found to be under stress or suffering from the effects of alcohol or drug abuse.

As we mentioned earlier it has been found that children between the ages of 4 and 12 are the most likely to suffer from sleepwalking. It has also been observed that the frequency and severity of sleepwalking increases as a person gets older. Statistically more boys sleepwalk than girls and the most frequent age to suffer from sleepwalking is when a child is 11 or 12 years old.

One common misconception that many people have about sleepwalking is that it is dangerous to try to wake someone who is sleepwalking. In fact, the exact opposite is true. Since, for example, a sleepwalker could possibly take a motor vehicle and drive it out onto the road he or she then becomes a danger to the community and himself. Waking someone who is sleepwalking is not physically or mentally harmful in the least and is a much better alternative.


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