Dr Ruth: Sleepwalking

My 11 year old son has recently started sleepwalking. On two occasions I’ve found him coming downstairs and once he was by the door. I’m worried he might harm himself. He is due to go to Italy on an exchange with his college next year and has started saying he doesn’t want to go in case he sleepwalks when he’s staying with a strange family. What should I do?
Somnambulism, or sleepwalking as it is commonly known, can occur at any age but is particularly common amongst adolescent boys. 

Whilst not widespread, at least 20 percent of children are thought to experience at least one episode of sleepwalking in childhood so be reassured that your son is not alone.
Sleepwalking is usually characterised by sitting up or getting out of bed and moving about in a distracted and clumsy manner. Often the sleepwalker will be preoccupied by looking for something around the house. A friend recalls finding her daughter in the kitchen one night, busily searching the cupboard for ingredients for her school cookery lesson the next day. Her daughter then went back to bed, and remembered nothing in the morning! 
Sleepwalking is not dangerous in itself and not generally a cause for concern. The major risk is accidental injury. If your son continues to sleepwalk, take safety measures to be sure that he doesn't hurt himself such as shutting, even locking, windows and making sure that any doors out of the house can't be opened. Lock doors to the cellar, kitchen or any other dangerous places. 
It can be quite alarming to discover your child sleepwalking around the house and this has led to a number of myths such as waking a sleepwalking child can de harmful to them. In reality, sleepwalking children can be very difficult to arouse and whilst waking your son is not dangerous, he may be disorientated or distressed when he awakes. It is best to guide him gently back to bed. In a typical episode, I encountered my son walking down the stairs mumbling ‘I can’t find it…’ Rather than waking him, I told him that I had put ‘it’ on his bed and he promptly returned to bed and fell back to sleep.
Sleepwalking is thought to occur in the beginning of the phase of ‘deep sleep’. In this phase, less of the brain remains active as it begins to repair and restore itself following the day’s activity. Sleepwalking can be an indication that certain parts of the brain may not be relaxing properly. It can also be triggered by disruptions to a child's normal sleep patterns, such as illness, fatigue, stress or anxiety. It is also possible that hormonal changes in adolescence can trigger it. 
But worrying about sleepwalking and avoiding certain activities because of it won’t help the situation. Talk to your son and help him to set up healthy sleep habits that are likely to encourage a sound night’s sleep. Try to establish a regular, relaxing bedtime routine such as reading time in bed or listening to calming music. Encourage your son to avoid eating, watching television or playing on the computer just before bedtime. If stress appears to be a trigger for sleepwalking, teaching your son some simple stress management or relaxation techniques could help. Once in place, these are all things that he could do when on his exchange trip, to reduce the chances of sleepwalking. 
Finally, you can reassure your son that most cases of sleepwalking subside over time and have usually disappeared by the age of 15. With any luck, he may have outgrown his sleepwalking before he goes to Italy!

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