Sleep Terrors and Sleep walking – Are these just childhood sleep disorders?

Though sleep terrors and sleep walking are widely associated with school-going children; they are not the only ones affected by it. These sleep disorders are collectively termed as ‘parasomnia’ and refer to all the unusual behaviour that people may get into while they are still asleep. Both, Sleep Terrors and Sleep Walking are partial wake-ups from deep sleep and can be seen together in a single individual. They sure are episodic behaviours that intrude onto sleep but it is important to understand its clinical and diagnostic features. Many a times they exist in isolation while in many cases they could coexist with neurological, psychological and medical disorders. Decoding these complex behavioural issues, Dr Irshaad Ebrahim of The London Sleep Centre, explains the prevalence of these sleep disorders and ways to clinically treat it.


Taking care of your sleep:

Most often than not, adults tend to forgo a couple of their sleep hours if they are hard pressed for time. Children also these days have given in to a gadget-savvy lifestyle and prefer spending many screen hours on everything between televisions to handheld devices. But, Dr Ebrahim says, if there is one thing we should all show more respect to, then it has to be a good night’s sleep. Though these sleep disorders are genetic in nature and run through families, it is equally important to allow your body a regular sleep routine and complete sleep cycle each night to keep its negative effects at bay.

What is it?

Sleep Walking occurs in a partial state of wakefulness from deep sleep. With children, it probably occurs more frequently because the body and brain’s ability to regulate the sleep-wake cycles is still immature. However, it can also continue to occur into adulthood, usually triggered by stress, sleep deprivation or underlying sleep disorders such as snoring, sleep apnea or periodic limb movement disorder.


Night Terrors don’t cause any long-term psychological harm and occur amongst kids during deep sleep. Children experiencing sleep terrors often sit up screaming and appear very agitated, usually with their eyes open. Children who experience frequent night terrors during young childhood are more likely to sleep walk after 5 years of age. Don’t be too quick to label random episodes of night terrors as a sleep disorder until it repeats frequently.

Dealing with Sleep Walking and Sleep Terrors

Sleep Walking and Sleep Terrors are not generally harmful but in some circumstances require intervention. While Sleep Walking is characterized by walking around in partial wakefulness carrying out autonomic and sometimes complex behaviours, precautions should be taken to ensure it doesn’t result in an accident. For example – In many cases, people tend to open doors and walk away from comfort zones, accidently bumping into things or falling down stairs which can cause injuries. It is important to secure the environment as much as possible, keep windows and property exit doors locked and use stair gates for children. It is best to slowly guide sleep walkers back to their bed, without disturbing their sleep if possible.

Sleep Terrors look far more distressing to the observer than they are to the person or child experiencing them. Far from the usual belief, Sleep Terrors aren’t about people experiencing their nightmares which occur from a different stage of sleep called REM sleep and can cause significant distress. A child or individual who experiences night terrors may scream, shout and thrash around in extreme panic, and may even jump out of bed. Their eyes will be open but they’re not fully awake. A child also might cry, but the individual will not usually have any recollection of the event the following morning. Talking or touching the person experiencing a Sleep Terror should be avoided as it can confuse the sufferer and prolong the episode. Instead, stay calm and wait until the episode passes. Episodes usually occur in the first few hours of sleep and last up to 15 minutes.

In people prone to these conditions, having enough sleep and having a regular sleep pattern is extremely important in reducing frequency of events. It is obvious that if people have regular episodes of Sleep Walking and Sleep Terrors then, it is bound to cause sleep disruption significantly. As a result, the consequences of Sleep Deprivation will follow,  such as, poor concentration and reduced ability to learn. These occurrences are very disturbing for family members and co-dwellers too, as the sight of night terrors is very distressing.

To decide whether such incidents are actually sleep terrors and sleep walking and to check whether these episodes are being triggered by an underlying sleep disorder and having a detrimental effect on an individual’s health, it is best to seek a sleep specialist’s advice to diagnose and map the road to treatment.

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