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Ever Wonder About Sleepwalking?

One evening, my ten-year-old sleepwalked and talked. It's a weird thing to witness. I decided to find out what was going on.

Sleepwalking, also known as somnambulism, is a kind of parasomnia, which is a disorder affecting the balance between waking and sleeping. If you encounter a sleepwalker, just gently lead that person back to bed. Sleepwalking can be dangerous, because of the risk of physical injury. There is no need to wake the sleepwalker and it would probably be difficult for you to do so, anyway. If it does happen, the sleepwalker may be startled or confused, but should be alright and probably won't kill you for doing it. But don't blame me if something weird happens, this article is just for infotainment purposes.

When we sleep, we go through sleep cycles with two main phases—the non-rapid eye movement (NREM) phase, in which the body is active but the brain is quiet; and the rapid eye movement (REM) phase, in which the body is still, but the brain is active. This sleep cycle repeats during the night, with the REM phase getting longer as the night progresses. How and why we have these different phases is still not clear. Sleepwalking seems to be the result of a problem in the transition between these two phases. One study found that some parts of the brain are awake, but other parts are asleep, so sleepwalking may be an imbalance of these states.

Sleepwalking is more common in children than adults and is more common among boys than girls. Again, reasons for this are not clear, but a few possibilities for why this occurs may be related to rapid brain development, the release of growth hormones or that the immature brain is still learning to handle the transition between the two phases. During normal sleep, a neurotransmitter, GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid)  acts as an inhibitor that keeps the body from moving. Some children do not release enough of this chemical and are able to move around while sleeping. My daughter was relieved to hear that most kids grow out of sleepwalking. She’s had a few other sleepwalking incidents when she was younger and it seems that it's not that uncommon for people to have walked in their sleep at least once.

For some, however, sleepwalking continues from childhood through to adulthood and may be triggered by certain drugs or conditions. It is rare, but it is more of a concern, because it can be symptomatic of more serious neurological problems. There are bizarre stories of people doing things in their sleep, like eating, driving a car and other activities that you think would require them to be paying attention.

A study on a family with four generations of sleepwalkers suggests that at least one gene on chromosome 20 is involved. Other factors that can trigger sleepwalking include sleep deprivation, chaotic sleep schedules, stress and fever. A recent study suggests that sounds can trigger sleepwalking. I don't know if this had anything to with our situation, but my daughter had not been feeling well because of illness and a neighbour's car alarm had been going off in the middle of the night. But now that I've told her that it’s not so strange for kids to sleepwalk, she is sleeping more peacefully.

Delve deeper into the science behind our complex human bodies, check out "Ever Wonder About Antihistamines"