Thursday 22 February 2018

Dear David Coleman: My son sleepwalks and wets his bed - how can we fix this?

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David Coleman

David Coleman

Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.

Q. I have an eight-year-old boy and over the last year he has started sleep walking a few hours after going to bed. He could sleep walk anywhere, but what's most upsetting to both my husband and myself is that he ends up getting into a spare bed, which he ends up bed-wetting. He doesn't seem to have any problems inside or outside of school that we are aware of. I ensure he uses the toilet prior to going to bed. He usually plays games on his tablet in bed before going to sleep. Have you any idea why he is doing this and what we can do to help?

David replies: Although it may seem like you have two separate issues, one of sleepwalking and the other of bed-wetting, it is quite likely that the two are linked.

Sleepwalking is quite common in younger children and rarely needs treatment unless it happens very regularly, causes them to be sleepy in the day, or involves some kind of dangerous behaviour while sleepwalking (like going out of the house). It resolves, for most children, by their early teens.

It tends to happen, like for your son, within a few hours of going to sleep. In terms of the neurology of the sleep cycle, it occurs when children are usually at their deepest point of sleep, such that they are disoriented and don't appear properly "awake", even though their eyes may be open and they may appear purposeful in their wandering.

An urge to do a wee can often be the trigger for a sleepwalking incident. Some children can end up weeing in some odd places in the house, like cupboards or the corners of rooms. Children never have an awareness of their actions and have no memory of it in the morning.

From your description, it does sound like your son gets up, perhaps with an urge to go to the loo, and is disoriented such that he walks, seemingly randomly and then gets back into bed (albeit the spare bed), perhaps considering his trip to the loo to be complete and then wees, wetting the bed.

In order to help your son, I think you need to look at reducing the likelihood of him sleepwalking in the first place. In tandem, you can also look at intervening, gently, during an episode of sleepwalking to avoid the subsequent bed-wetting.

Minimising the likelihood of him sleepwalking in the first place involves making sure he is getting enough consistent sleep. Children who are over-tired, or have irregular sleep patterns, are at more risk of sleepwalking than children who are well-rested and get enough sleep.

So, look again at his bedtime routine. If he is late to bed currently, then look at moving his bedtime earlier. Get him into a strong routine where the steps towards bed are consistent and reliable. So, create the same nightly habit of moving from being downstairs to getting upstairs, into PJs, teeth brushed and into bed.

I'd also strongly recommend that you remove the tablet as his final "wind-down" before sleep. There is a lot of research evidence to suggest the blue light from digital devices disrupts sleep. Gaming on digital devices before bed will also activate his brain rather than help it to soothe and settle.

So instead of the tablet, consider reading to him in bed, or letting him read to himself, if that is what he'd prefer. Using soft music or relaxation tapes just before sleep is another option. Indeed, almost any other means of relaxing or switching off is preferable to a screen!

Hopefully, your son is going to bed by 8pm, given his age, and so the chances are that you will be awake at the time he sleepwalks. If you are, then it might help if you can guide him to the toilet during his wandering, such that he does a wee there. You don't need to wake him up. In fact, being woken in the middle of a sleepwalk can be distressing for children. Your son might get a fright to discover himself up and about. But, in his half-wakefulness, you can probably gently direct him without waking him.

His sleepwalking (and the subsequent bed-wetting) are likely to be a phase that he goes through. Changing his sleep habits and keeping a close eye on any wanderings may help him move through it quicker.

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