Sleep terrors and sleepwalking tend to run in families. They are often called night terrors, or pavor nocturnus, and are a related disorder that usually occurs in young children.
Sleepwalking, also called somnambulism, is common in school age children. One study estimates that as many as 15% of children between the ages of 5 and 12 years walk in their sleep at least once.
Repeated sleepwalking is more common in males and frequently is associated with nighttime bed wetting.
In sleep terrors and sleepwalking, a child suddenly sits up in bed one or two hours after falling asleep, exhibits intense fear or agitation, and may scream or cry out that others are in the room, and cannot be comforted or awakened. As the disturbance subsides, the child returns to deep sleep. When the child wakes up in the morning, he or she cannot recall the sleep terrors.
Sleep terrors are different from nightmares, which are frightening dreams that often can be recalled the nest morning in vivid detail. Children usually stop sleepwalking during adolescence. However, sleepwalking continues beyond puberty in one to six percent of the time.
Sleep terrors are most common between the ages of 1 and 8, but may begin as early as 6 months and occasionally last into adulthood.
Children are more likely to sleepwalk, or experience sleep terrors when they are overtired or anxious. Providing an early bedtime with relaxing activities before bedtime may help to prevent disturbances.
Avoid sleepwalking injuries by making the bedroom and house as safe as possible. Consider the following precautions:
In most cases treatment for sleep terrors and sleepwalking is not necessary. Most episodes will go away on their own over time. A parent or caretaker should focus on keeping the sleepwalking child safe.
To help a sleep walking child return to normal sleep, gently lead the child back to bed. During an episode of sleep terrors, offer reassurance with repeated, soothing statements such as "you are safe, you are home in your own bed". It is not necessary to wake the child, and its possible you couldn't if you tried.
Although sleepwalkers occasionally injure themselves or others, most episodes of sleepwalking and sleep terrors are brief and harmless. These episodes do tend to stop before adulthood.
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