Concerned about a sleepwalking child? We ask two experts to explain everything you need to know and whether it's something to worry about

Sleepwalking is common in children, but when should you be concerned? Our experts explain

A young boy in pyjamas sleepwalking while carrying a teddy bear
(Image credit: Getty Images)

We've asked the experts all your burning questions about sleepwalking in children. Here's what they want you to know...

When you're a parent, you become familiar with all sorts of sleep problems. Dealing with a lack of sleep is pretty much in the job description - feeding, nightmares and early wake-ups for the school run are just a few of the reasons you feel tired - and no matter how exhausted you are, you have to find a way to wake up in the morning when there's a tiny human to look after.

Sleepwalking is another challenge that many parents face when it comes to bedtimes. It's very common in children - according to the NHS it's thought 1 in 5 children will sleepwalk at least once - but that doesn't mean it's easy to deal with. Not only can it be frustrating being woken again and again by a restless child, but the thought of your kids roaming around in the night can be a source of worry for many parents. Sleepwalking rarely needs medical attention, but we've got the experts' verdict to find out everything you need to know if you have a child who sleepwalks.

What is sleepwalking?

Just as the name suggests, sleepwalking is when a person is walking or doing other complex tasks when they're not fully awake. Dr Chris Idzikowski, director of the Sleep Assessment and Advisory Service, explains, "Sleepwalking is a general term that involves doing things - like walking and eating - in our sleep. Sleepwalkers aren't aware of what they are doing."

The NHS explains that sleepwalking normally happens during periods of deep sleep, which peaks during the early part of the night - so sleepwalking tends to happen in the first few hours after falling asleep. The person sleepwalking may simply sit up in bed and look around, while others may get up and walk about, or they might even get dressed or eat something.

NHS GP and Time4Sleep sleep expert Dr Hana Patel adds, "Sleepwalking can start at any age, but is more common in children. Although most grow out of it by the time they reach puberty, it can sometimes persist into adulthood."

A young boy lying across the arm of a sofa

(Image credit: Getty Images)

What causes sleepwalking?

Dr Hana Patel explains that there are lots of factors that can trigger sleepwalking, including not getting enough sleep, stress and anxiety, infections and fevers.

Dr Chris adds that no one really knows the exact cause of sleepwalking in children specifically, adding, "One theory is that children's brains have not yet learned that it's best not to walk when in sleep mode."

There's also evidence to suggest that sleepwalking is genetic, and therefore it can run in the family. Most children grow out of sleepwalking by the time they reach puberty, but "about 2% of adults continue to sleepwalk," says Dr Chris.

Meanwhile, Dr Hana says, “Other sleep disorders that can cause you to frequently wake up suddenly during the night, such as obstructive sleep apnoea and restless legs syndrome, can also trigger a sleepwalking episode. Making sure you get enough sleep, and working on strategies to deal with and reduce stress will often help reduce the likelihood of sleepwalking."

Other factors that can trigger sleepwalking:

  • Stress
  • Being upset
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Certain types of medication
  • Being startled during deep sleep by a sudden noise or touch

Should I be concerned about my child sleepwalking?

Occasional sleepwalking episodes are very common in children, and nothing to worry about. Most sleepwalking episodes won't last more than 10 minutes.

However, there are circumstances when sleepwalking people might put themselves or other in danger without realising it, says Dr Chris. Stairs, sharp objects or opening the front door and walking into the road are all dangers for a sleepwalker.

However, you should not shout, startle or try to physically restrain someone who is sleepwalking unless they're in danger, as they may lash out. Instead, Dr Chris explains, "It's safer to tell them to go back to bed. People who are sleepwalking are in deep sleep, so waking them causes a temporary condition called 'sleep drunkenness', where people are disorientated. In children it may cause distress."

Guide them back to bed and, if they do wake up, reassure them that everything is ok.

A young girl in bed with her mother touching her shoulder

(Image credit: Getty Images)

What to do if your child sleepwalks

To keep your child safe, make sure windows and doors are locked and keep sharp objects out of reach. You could also install safety gates outside your child's room and/or at the top of any stairs.

If you see your child sleepwalking, Dr Hana Patel explains that they will often go back to sleep again if undisturbed, but you could gently guide them back to bed by reassuring them.

She adds, "If your child sleepwalks at the same time most nights, try gently waking them for a short time around 15 to 30 minutes before they would normally sleepwalk – this may stop them sleepwalking by altering their normal sleep cycle."

When to see a doctor

In most cases, sleepwalking isn't serious and doesn't need the help of a professional. However, if your child is sleepwalking frequently, becoming violent or harming themselves or others, then it's a good idea to speak to your GP or a sleep specialist.

Dr Hana advises, "Consider seeing a GP if sleepwalking happens frequently, you're concerned a person may be at risk of injuring themselves or others, or the episodes continue or start in adulthood.

"The GP may refer you to a specialist sleep centre, where your sleep history can be discussed in more detail. There's no specific treatment for sleepwalking, but it generally helps to try to get enough sleep and have a regular and relaxing routine before bedtime."

However, she adds that sleepwalking is rarely a sign of anything serious and may get better with time, particularly in children.

For more sleep-related advice, we've delved into the reasons why you keep waking up early and shared expert advice for recovering from a bad night's sleep. You might also want to check out these foods for sleep, and we've rounded up the best ways to get rid of dark circles under eyes too.

Ellie Hutchings
Family News Editor

Ellie is GoodtoKnow’s Family News Editor and covers all the latest trends in the parenting world - from relationship advice and baby names to wellbeing and self-care ideas for busy mums. Ellie is also an NCTJ-qualified journalist and has a distinction in MA Magazine Journalism from Nottingham Trent University and a first-class degree in Journalism from Cardiff University. Previously, Ellie has worked with BBC Good Food, The Big Issue, and the Nottingham Post, as well as freelancing as an arts and entertainment writer alongside her studies. When she’s not got her nose in a book, you’ll probably find Ellie jogging around her local park, indulging in an insta-worthy restaurant, or watching Netflix’s newest true crime documentary.