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Health A-Z

Medical Content Created by the Faculty of the
Harvard Medical School

Symptoms

Sleepwalkers make purposeful movements while in a state of partial awakening from deep sleep. Some sleepwalkers simply sit up in bed and move their legs. Others carry out more complex tasks. These may include dressing and undressing, eating, or urinating.

Sleepwalking episodes usually occur 1 to 2 hours after going to sleep. They last from 1 to 30 minutes. A sleepwalker has open eyes and a blank expression. He or she is usually difficult, if not impossible, to awaken. The next morning, he or she won't remember the episode.

In sleep terrors, a child suddenly sits up in bed 1 or 2 hours after falling asleep. During the sleep terror, the child:

  • Exhibits intense fear or agitation

  • May thrash out violently

  • Is not aware of his or her surroundings

  • May be breathing fast and/or have a rapid heart rate

  • May be sweating

  • May scream or cry out that others are in the room

  • Cannot be comforted or awakened

A sleep terror episode may last for 10 to 20 minutes. As the disturbance subsides, the child returns to deep sleep. When the child wakes up in the morning, he or she cannot recall the sleep terrors.

Sleep terrors are different from nightmares. Nightmares are frightening dreams that often can be recalled the next morning in vivid detail.

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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

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