Somnambulism is similar to pavor nocturnus (night terrors) in that it occurs during the non-dreaming stage of sleep, usually within an hour or two of going to bed. The sleepwalking child feels an intense need to take action and may appear alert, purposeful, or anxious as he or she moves about. For many years, people believed that it was dangerous to awaken a sleepwalker, but there is no basis for this view. There is, however, little reason to awaken a sleepwalking child, and it may be impossible to do so. Episodes of sleepwalking may be signs of a child's heightened anxiety about something.
Somnambulism, or sleepwalking, affects an estimated 15 percent of children in their early school years. It decreases in frequency with increasing age. It is very uncommon among adults.
Causes and symptoms
The root cause of sleepwalking is not known. Anxiety and stress are the most commonly given reasons for sleepwalking.
If sleepwalking is common among family members, it is more likely that the child may respond to even slight increases in anxiety with sleepwalking behavior.
When to call the doctor
A doctor or other health care provider should be called when episodes of sleepwalking cannot be comfortably managed in the home.
A diagnosis of somnambulism is made by observation and history. There are no laboratory tests. An electroencephalogram may be used as a part of an analysis in a sleep laboratory, but this is the exception rather than the rule.
Sleepwalking children should be gently guided back to bed. They will usually be cooperative in this effort.
The prognosis for sleepwalking is good. Most children experience a few episodes of somnambulism and then simply stop, often when a source of stress or anxiety
There is no known way to prevent episodes of sleepwalking.
There is no known link between sleepwalking and nutrition.
Parents should give careful consideration to events and environmental changes that may have triggered the onset of sleepwalking. Potential hazards that may injure children should be removed from their sleeping areas.
Electroencephalogram (EEG)—A record of the tiny electrical impulses produced by the brain's activity picked up by electrodes placed on the scalp. By measuring characteristic wave patterns, the EEG can help diagnose certain conditions of the brain.
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American Academy of Family Physicians. 11400 Tomahawk Creek Parkway, Leawood, KS 66211-2672. (913) 906-6000. firstname.lastname@example.org. <www.aafp.org>
American Academy of Pediatrics. 141 Northwest Point Boulevard, Elk Grove Village, IL 60007-1098. (847) 434-4000, Fax: (847) 434-8000. email@example.com. <www.aap.org/default.htm>
American Academy of Sleep Medicine. 6301 Bandel Road NW, Suite 101, Rochester, MN 55901. (507) 287-6006. Fax: (507) 287-6008. firstname.lastname@example.org. <www.asda.org>
American College of Physicians, 190 N. Independence Mall West, Philadelphia, PA 19106-1572. (800) 523-1546, x2600 or (215) 351-2600. <www.acponline.org>
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L. Fleming Fallon, Jr., M.D., Dr.PH.