It is a normal process of the brain to dream during sleep. Everyone has had a dream during sleep at some point in their life. Some of us have even experienced nightmares. Not a pleasant experience, of course, but nevertheless it has happened from time to time. Others talk in their sleep, laugh in their sleep, even cry in their sleep. I have been known, from time to time, to give out a punch in my sleep, even. And like myself, some of you sleepwalk. Whether you remember the experience or not, it can happen, even to the best of us.
So what exactly is happening in the brain while we are dreaming, talking, walking and having nightmares while sleeping? I have read many differing medical opinions, psychological explanations and good ol’ grandma’s rendition of the brains inner workings. The one conclusion I have come to about the brain, is it’s a very complex part of the body. The brain spends it’s time while you sleep, to repair, register and store all of the experiences from the day. What is interesting about the brain, is the effect that emotion plays in its function. The way you feel about an experience can alter the brains understanding about it. And in saying that, your dreams and nightmares can even alter the way you feel when you awaken from your sleep. I know I have had some dreams that had left me feeling confused, elated, and even stressed, depending on what I had dreamt about that night. Sometimes, the brain takes longer to register the information than others, and can really cause havoc in your natural rhythm.
When I was a young girl, I used to sleepwalk all the time. Usually, because I had to use the washroom and had a hard time finding it. My parents would block off the stairs with a large chair, so I wouldn’t risk falling down them. A number of times, one of my parents had to get up and guide me, because I would wander aimlessly. My daughter, Piper, was a sleep walker too, and the same type of situation as with me, having to use the washroom. But there came a point with my daughter when her sleep walking took a spin in a scary direction.
Piper was between the ages of 6 and 9 years old, during these difficult nights. She started talking in her sleep, jumbled and gibberish, tossing and turning in her bed. Then it led to walking around and talking, as if there was someone in the room with her. Her speech began to make sense, forming coherent sentences, but her breathing was abnormally heavy. Her eyes had a glazed look and she wasn’t blinking normally. I remember this one evening, I was sitting watching a movie and just about ready to head up to bed, when Piper came down the stairs mumbling something. She curled up on my lap and asked me to, “make them go away”. I asked her, “who? Make who go away?” She didn’t specify who, just pointed. Well of course, there was nothing there for me to see, but she was definitely seeing someone. Her behaviour was not typical of my daughter. She was clearly bothered by someone not going away. At one point, she became frantic yelling at me to make them leave, pointing at them as if they were sitting at my kitchen table. She seemed angry and fearful, curling up in a ball one minute, then the next running around yelling. Finally, she began to cry telling me she doesn’t like it when they are mean to her, “I don’t’ want them around anymore”. I held her tightly, trying to make sense of what I just witnessed, picked her up and took her back up to bed. I tucked her in, and sat beside her watching her sleep, must have been about an hour. Piper didn’t remember a thing the next morning. This behaviour at night continued on for a few years, multiple times a week.
After so long of dealing with this disturbing behaviour, I took her to see the pediatrician. He had nothing insightful to share with me. He told me this is normal behaviour for her age. Nothing to be alarmed with, just keep her safe. Well, I left that doctors appointment feeling unsatisfied with things. I read some things on the internet about it, but again, nothing seemed to offer any solutions, or even for me to understand this better.
Now, Piper is 14 years old and still doesn’t remember her episodes of ‘sleepwalking’. She hasn’t had any since, just the odd talking in her sleep, but she doesn’t leave her bed. Looking back, I know now what was causing these episodes and I wish I knew then what I know now. Hind sight really sucks!
So, I would like to offer you some information and strategies to help you with your child, understanding this behaviour better and hopefully you can get to the bottom of why.
First of all, let me distinguish between a few terms regarding sleep disorders. It isn’t just that cut and dry.
Sleepwalking – Night Terrors
Sleepwalking – The child will wander, roaming the house, dazed and a bit clumsy. Their eyes will seem glossed over and their speech will be mostly nonsense. They will have no memory of it. This usually happens during the non-rem cycle of sleep.
Night Terrors – The child will seem agitated, unsettled and irregular breathing pattern. They may seem sweaty and have dilated pupils. The child’s speech is clear and coherent. Their behaviour will seem terrified and even violent. This also occurs during the first part of their sleep cycle, anywhere between the first 30-90 minutes of sleep.
Most children seem to move past these episodes as they grow into their pre-teen years. But during those times when your child is exhibiting one of these sleep disorders, it can be stressful and worrisome for parents. When should you be concerned and what can you do about it?
First of all, lets take a look at the safety factors you can be aware of, to assure nothing happens to your child during these episodes:
1. Check their room and the house for any objects that can be harmful to your child. Remove them or lock them up in a place that is not easily accessible.
2. Remove any obstacles that your child can hurt themselves on, or that could possibly break.
3. Lock your doors and windows to help prevent your child from escaping.
4. Block any open stairways to prevent you child from falling down them.
5. Place their mattress on the floor so your child cannot fall and hurt themselves.
6. Try not to wake them. Redirect them back to bed.
Now, let’s discuss possible reasons, should you be concerned and solutions for helping your child:
Sleepwalking can be a harmless experience, with no effects on your child whatsoever. The only time you need to be concerned is when the sleepwalking becomes dangerous, such as the child can actually unlock doors and wander out into the street. Easy solutions include locks in which the child cannot reach, multiple locks and even alarms set in place to wake the parents if the child manages to leave the house.
Night Terrors are bit trickier to handle. If your child has been experiencing one of these for a prolonged period of time, yes you should be concerned. Don’t let your concerns slide. Here is a good place to start in your quest to understand and help your child through all of this…
First things first, pay attention to your child’s physical movement and tone in their voice. How terrified or angry are they? What does their body language suggest? Are they looking to fight someone, or are they cringing in fear?
Secondly, listen to what they are saying during an episode. Who are they talking to and what is the reason for their conversation? This can help you understand the situation they are experiencing and if this actually pertains to anything directly going on in their life.
Thirdly, consider there may be something stressful your child is dealing with. In my daughter’s case, looking back from all that we have been through, it is clear now why Piper was experiencing her Night Terrors. She was being bullied and dealing with abuse. She was clearly in fear during her Night Terrors and it was reflected from her daily life experiences.
Or perhaps, the stress is caused by an anticipated event, whether it being life changing or a single event, this may cause your child unease expressed through their sleep behaviour.
Talking with your child during awake hours, prompting clear and specific questions can help guide your child into opening up about their daily life. Creative time, drawing emotions and events can help paint a picture of any disturbances your child may be experiencing.
Also consider, any medications or illnesses that may be causing these sleep disorders.
Here are a few suggestions to help our child have a more restful sleep at night:
1. Engage in a relaxation exercise or meditation before bedtime
2. Help your child to write down any thoughts that are stuck on their mind before they lay down, to clear their mind before falling asleep
3. Avoid any stimuli before bedtime (auditory and visual)
4. If you have a pet, have your pet sleep with your child in bed. Helps keep your child feeling calm and safe during sleep
Remember that children rarely do anything that isn’t cause and effect. There is always a reasoning to their behaviour so don’t shrug it off. Continue to investigate why your child is having a sleep disorder and seek medical help if your child is beginning to self harm, harming others or exhibiting physical ailments because of it.