Kids Sleep Walking, Complex Sleep Behaviors in Parasomnias

As a kid, I was an epic sleep walker. Let me share a story from my childhood.

A Childhood Sleep Walking Adventure

Growing up in my childhood home near Seattle was me, my younger brother, and two parents. In the house next door were two kids our age, who we played with all the time. Sometimes in their home or back yard, and sometimes in ours. We were pretty good friends.

One night about 11:30pm, I got up out of bed, walked down the hall past my brothers’ bedroom, past my parents’ bedroom, through the living room and out the front door. Then I walked down a few steps, across the lawn, up a short rockery, and down the narrow sidewalk to the neighbors back gate. I pulled the string to open the wooden gate, up 5 stairs to their back door, and into their house. Contining on, through their kitchen, dining room and down the hall until stopping at the foot of their bed. They woke up, incredibly startled to find the neighbor kid in their house.

They guided me back through their house, I woke up in their kitchen. My parents woke up when the neighbors pounded on our front door, delivering me safely home.

That is a true story of extreme sleep walking. Thank goodness I didn’t choose to walk to the friend who lived across the street!

What is Happening in Sleep Walking?

Sleep walking is a type of parasomnia. In parasomnias, part of the brain is asleep while part of the brain is awake. That is why we can do these really complex behaviors during sleep. Think how complex going up a rockery or finding the string to the wooden gate is, especially in the dark! Parasomnias are classed as either occurring in nonREM sleep or REM sleep (plus there’s an ‘other’ category). Almost all parasomnias that involve movement occur during nonREM sleep. In REM sleep, our skeletal muscles are paralyzed, as a safety mechanism so we can’t act out our dreams. Contrary to popular belief, sleep walking isn't associated with dreams, which occur during REM sleep. You can watch my How Many Sleep Disorders Are There? video for more on this.

Understanding Sleep Walking

The incidence of sleep walking peaks in people ages 7 to 12 years old. Sleep walking can also run in families, so if you were a sleep walker, watch out for the behavior in your own children. Many children will ‘out-grow’ sleep walking as they become adults. In my case, the last known episode was at age 20. Because it’s a nonREM sleep disorder, it is more likely to occur in the first half of the persons’ sleep period.

There are a couple circumstances that increase the risk of sleep walking, and other parasomnias too. If a person is sleep deprived (as many children and especially teens are), or on an irregular schedule, they are more likely to sleep walk. Also being under stress or having an illness (such as a fever) will increase sleep walking. In some cases, certain medications can increase parasomnia sleep behaviors, so discussing these with a healthcare provider is important if the sleep walking is distressing, or begins with a new prescription.


Because of the possibility of injury, we want to make sure safety precautions are in place. Here are some tips to increase safety for someone who sleepwalks:

Ensure Safety: Secure windows, doors, stairwells, and potentially dangerous items like medicine cabinets and knife drawers. Use child-proofing devices.

Manage Risk Factors: Maintain a regular sleep schedule and reduce stress to help reduce sleep walking incidents.

Use Alarms: For kids sleep walking, consider placing an alarm on their bedroom door to alert you if they begin wandering. This can be a DIY bell hung from the ceiling where it will ring if the bedroom door is opened, to a higher tech mechanical motion alarm.

Gentle Guidance: If you find someone sleep walking, gently guide them back to bed without waking them. They are asleep, and are not having a dream. So waking them can be disorienting and upsetting, as they may think “What’s wrong? Why are my parents waking me in the night.” Likewise, avoid questioning the child about their sleep walking the next morning, and don’t allow other children to tease them about it. 

Final Thoughts

Sleep walking is interesting, as it can involve very complex behavior. Most children gradually grow out of it after the peak at age 7 to 12 years old. However, sometimes the sleep walking is extreme, distressing or dangerous. This may be true particularly for adults who also experience it. In that case, you may want to consult a sleep specialist. Find a trained sleep specialist at your local sleep disorders institute.

Good night and sleep well,

Dr. Catherine Darley

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About the Author: Dr. Catherine Darley

Dr. Catherine Darley is a pioneering internationally recognized expert in the use of natural, behavioral and lifestyle medicine for the treatment of sleep disorders. Dr. Darley founded the Institute of Naturopathic Sleep Medicine to fill the need for natural, less invasive solutions to a common problem–poor sleep.  

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