Sleepwalking, also known as somnambulism, is a sleep disorder in which one arises from sleep, normally a very deep sleep, in a state of low consciousness and performs normal, daily activities or tasks. These activities can be as simple as talking, moaning, gesturing, sitting up in bed and walking to the bathroom or as complicated as cooking and driving. Sleepwalkers very rarely remember their incidents of sleepwalking because they really are not conscious during their sleepwalking episodes. These episodes can last anywhere from a few seconds to almost an hour.
Sleepwalking was initially thought to represent a sleeping person acting out his or her dream. However, sleepwalking has little to do with dreaming as sleepwalking occurs in the deepest stage of sleep, where dreams do not normally occur.
Sleepwalking is most prevalent in children, with the peak age being between 4 and 8 years, and it usually stops by adolescence. Some children who suffer from sleepwalking are also affected by night terrors. Parents worried about their children’s psyches can rest easy. Sleepwalking is not a sign that something is psychologically or emotionally wrong with a child, and the occurrences of sleepwalking do not cause emotional harm.
Sleepwalking is less common in adults. However, when adults suffer from sleepwalking, it occurs an average of three times more per year than in children, and night terrors are much more prevalent in adult sleepwalkers, almost twice as common as in children. Sleepwalking is very rare for the elderly and usually indicates another type of disorder.
Although causes of sleepwalking are not entirely known, many experts believe that sleepwalking in childhood is due to delays in maturation. Another theory places importance on delta waves (a high-amplitude brain wave), which are common in sleepwalkers. The frequency and intensity of these delta waves indicates an immaturity of the central nervous system, which could be a likely cause of sleepwalking.
Sleepwalking does not seem to target a specific sex, as the reported cases are evenly distributed between males and females. However, sleepwalking is clustered in families. Children who have one parent who is a sleepwalker are 45% more likely to be sleepwalkers. If both parents suffer from sleepwalking, children are 60% more likely to be sleepwalkers. Other factors that can lead to sleepwalking are sleep deprivation and excess fatigue.
There are drugs that can be prescribed to treat sleepwalking—normally a low dose of several types of tricyclic anti-depressants. The prescription of anti-depressants is normally seen as a last resort for sleepwalking. Most sleep experts simply advise practicing good sleep hygiene, avoiding sleep deprivation, putting away dangerous items and locking doors and windows as a preventive measure. Most experts advise not waking a sleepwalker but simply guiding him or her gently back to bed.
For information on other abnormal parasomnia disorders, like sleep driving, eating, talking, sexsomnia, click here.