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What The Heck Is A Parasomnia?

Have you ever heard of parasominas? I know I hadn't before I became a Sleep Specialist. Many years ago, I remember sitting in a sleep class and the instructor kept referring to parasomnias as though we all knew exactly what she was talking about about.  I looked around the room and thought, am I suppose to know what that means?  And then I thought, these don't happen to kids, do they? 

Let me break it down for you. It's actually a pretty basic definition.  Parasomnia refers to all abnormal things that can happen to people while they sleep, apart from sleep apnea. Parasomnias affect approximately 10% of Americans, they can occur in people of all ages however they are mostly common in children. So there is the reason knowing a little bit about parasomnias might matter.  If you have a child that has nightmares or night terrors or sleep walks, you may want to know more and searching the word parasomia will help you learn more.  

There are several different ways that a parasomnia presents itself. These include: nightmares, night terrors, sleep walking, sleep talking, confusion arousal, rhythmic movement disorder, nocturnal leg cramps, sleep bruxism, and sleep enuresis. 

So let's talk about the most common parasomonias we can see in kids.  

Nightmares are probably the most common.  Nightmares are vivid nighttime events that a child would experience during sleep that cause feelings of fear, terror and anxiety. Getting back to sleep is usually difficult for the person experiencing the nightmare. Parents should offer comfort to the child until they fall back asleep. Nightmares can happen if a child is overtired, watched something scary on TV or is going through a developmental change. 

Night terrors are a little bit different than nightmares in that the child  experiencing it will not be able to recall the episode later. During night terrors a person may scream and seem panicked, often while sitting in bed. The child may flail their limbs, thrash around, and could injure others. Night terrors can last 15-20 minutes and it is best to leave the lights off and try not to interact much with them until they are calm and waking up.  Once the child is calm and waking up, offering comfort is a good idea.  Night terrors can happen more often when a child is going through a developmental change, sick or needs to get more/better sleep.  

I’m sure you have heard of sleepwalking, but did you know that it is one of the more dangerous sleep disorders? An estimated 10% of all people sleepwalk at some point. It is more common for someone who experiences night terrors to also experience sleepwalking. It is dangerous because the person is moving around and not aware of what they are doing.  Sleepwalking is most commonly seen in children.  It is thought to be aggravated by stress, fatigue, sleep deprivation and some medications. When a child sleepwalks, attempt to wake him or her and gently guide them back to their bed. Also be sure that doors to the outside are locked and any kind of stairway that could be unsafe is gated so there is no chance for injury for the sleep walker.    

Sleep talking is a sleep-wake transition disorder.  This is something my poor husband has to deal with ALL THE TIME! I am a sleep talker! It is usually harmless but can be disturbing to sleep partners. A person who talks during sleep typically has no recollection of the actions. There is usually no need to do anything for this.

Confusion arousal usually occur when a person is awakened from a deep sleep during the first part of the night. The people experiencing this will react slowly to commands and may have trouble understanding questions that they are asked. Bedtime routine, timing, bedtime environment and adequate sleep are tall things that can help people experiencing confusion arousal.

Rhythmic movement disorder occurs mostly in children under the age of one. A child may lie flat, lift their head or upper body, and then forcefully hit their head on the pillow. It can also involve movements such as rocking on hands and knees. For those who suffer from violent body rolling or body rocking movements, protective padding in the crib or bed, along with bed rails, can help keep the child safe.  

Nocturnal leg cramps are sudden, involuntary contractions most commonly of the calf muscles during the night or periods of rest. Come causes of leg cramps may be linked to prolonged sitting, dehydration, and overexertion of the muscles. Muscle-stretching, exercise, and adequate water intake may help prevent leg cramps. Also a good bedtime routine, a proper sleep schedule and ensuring your child is getting enough sleep can help with this as well.  

Sleep paralysis is where the person is unable to move their body or limbs when falling asleep or waking up. This disorder can run in families, but the cause of sleep paralysis is unknown. An episode of sleep paralysis is often terminated by sound or touch and within minutes the person will be able to move again. While sleep paralysis is not harmful, people experiencing it may feel fearful because they do not know what is happening.

Sleep bruxism, also known as teeth grinding, involves involuntary, excessive grinding or clenching of the teeth during sleep. The severity of sleep bruxism can lead to problems of the teeth and jaw discomfort. A mouth guard can help prevent grinding, but is recommended that someone sees a doctor/dentist to discuss this issue further.

Sleep enuresis is a condition where the affected person is unable to maintain urinary control while asleep. Most children will not have full bladder control until after age 3 or 4. The best thing to do is to follow up with a doctor and try to avoid wake ups if possible. An overnight diaper may also be helpful.

As you can see, there are many different types of parasomnias. People who suffer from parasomnias see an improvement in their symptoms after their sleep habits are adjusted to meet their needs. Good sleep habits include keeping a regular sleep schedule, managing stress, having a relaxing bedtime routine, and getting enough sleep.

A person should seek treatment when there is a risk for injury to oneself or another person. It is also important to seek treatment if their sleep, or the sleep of others around them is disrupted.



About the author

Shannon Glenn

Shannon Glenn is the owner and founder of Sleep Well Children Consulting and a Certified Pediatric Sleep Specialist. She is dedicated to helping parents assist their children and babies in developing healthy sleep habits. With a B.A. in Psychology, Shannon has worked extensively with children and their families for over 15 years in a variety of settings.  She has been offering sleep solutions for over six years.  

Why didn’t we try this sooner?! As we speak he is sound asleep in his crib – and has been since 7:15 pm.

Karianne Wanggaard

Sleep Well Sleep Specialists

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Working with Shannon, I went from 2-3 wake ups every night to 1 or 0. She aligned the plan with my preferred sleep cycle. She was always coaching, never judging. Shannon was great, I have referred MANY people to her! That's the best testament to her work that I can give.

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