This article appears in our March 2016 issue of Indy’s Child Parenting Magazine. Flip through it here or pick up a copy today at your local Marsh or Kroger store, YMCA, public library or community center.
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. The problem is more prevalent among children than adults.
Christine Cole Bolt from Indianapolis found her son’s sleepwalking incidents very difficult to deal with. “He was running around the house screaming for me, jumping on and off the bed,” says Christine. “It was heartbreaking.”
Andrea Vermeulen of Brownsburg recalls how scary her 13 year-old son Griffin’s sleepwalking incidents were when he was younger. “He ended up in the garage one time,” she says. “I was afraid that I wouldn’t hear him if he tried to leave the house.”
Sleepwalking is just one form of parasomnia, a broad term for unusual behaviors that occur during sleep. According to Dr. Deborah Givan, a pediatric sleep medicine specialist with the Riley Sleep Disorders Center at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health, these behaviors occur during the deepest phase of non-REM sleep, typically within the first two hours of falling asleep. She also says they are usually triggered by some type of sensory input, such as noise or light. “The kids are really not awake, not aware of what they’re doing,” Dr. Givan explains. “Sometimes it can be very frightening to a parent.”
Night terrors and nightmares
Night terrors are another type of parasomnia that often go hand-in-hand with sleepwalking tendencies. Both problems tend to run in families, according to Dr. Givan.
Jacquelyn Thompson from Fishers is accustomed to having her sleep interrupted by her 4 year-old daughter’s night terrors. “She screams and shakes and walks to our room,” says Thompson. “I don’t try to wake her up, and place her back in bed and try to comfort her. Typically she falls back to sleep very quickly. I find she has them around growth spurts or when she is overtired and her schedule is off.”
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Vermeulen says her son’s night terrors were worse than his sleepwalking. “He would be screaming and crying – eyes wide open, but nobody home,” she recalls. “And you couldn’t really wake him.”
Nightmares are an entirely different problem. These dreams occur during REM sleep, and children remember them if they awaken during that phase. Mary Jo Heyen, a member of the Association of Dreamwork Practitioners, says letting children talk about their nightmares can help diffuse their fears. “In speaking about it, repeating it, [this] helps take some of the charge away,” explains Heyen. “To tell them it isn’t real may not help. For the dreamer, in a scary moment, it’s very real.”
It’s best not to try to awaken your child, or even to touch them, if they are sleepwalking or having a night terror, says Dr. Givan. “You want to watch and protect them from harm, but if you wake them up that makes the problem more likely to recur, and last longer.” As she explains, everyone needs that deep phase of restorative sleep. If you awaken a child during that phase, they’ll likely make up for it by returning to that phase later in the night. “Put a bell on the door so you know if the child is leaving,” she advises parents of sleepwalkers. “Use yourself as a barrier to guide the child back to a room.”
Dr. Givan says she prefers to avoid giving kids sleep medications, since sleepwalking and night terrors are generally benign issues. But, she says, it helps to avoid triggers for these problems such as overtiredness, noises and light.
The good news is that sleep problems tend to lessen as a child grows older. Dr. Givan says the toughest thing for parents may be reassuring themselves their child is okay during a parasomnia episode. “The best thing you can do is nothing,” she advises, “except to make sure that they’re safe.”
Trisha Shepherd is the Marketing Communications Manager for Riley Children’s Foundation in Indianapolis and a freelance writer for Midwest Parenting Publication. Trisha joined the nonprofit world in 2011 after working for 15 years as a television news journalist. Her memoir, “Know When to Run: Lessons from the Diary of a Gen X Mom,” documents her final year in the television business and her decision to make the leap into a more balanced life. Trisha’s anchoring and reporting work at WCIA, WHOTV, and WRTV earned her two Associated Press awards and two Illinois Broadcasters’ Association awards. She pioneered a series of “Generation X Moms” television and web reports through WHOTV in Des Moines, Iowa and wrote popular blogs on whotv.com and theindychannel.com. She is a Summa Cum Laude graduate of St. Norbert College in DePere, Wis., with a B.A. in Communications, Media and Theatre and a minor in Spanish.