Q: My 4 1/2 -year-old daughter talks in her sleep, sitting up in bed with her eyes open. At first we thought she was awake. This can go on for five minutes, and sometimes she gets pretty agitated. Last night she got up and started walking around. Is
-- Julie Gibbs, Chicago, Ill.
A: Lots of children carry on conversations in their sleep, say parents who called Child Life.
"My daughter did this until she was a senior in high school," says Anne Normal, a reader from Panhandle, Texas. "She would argue with me about being awake, although I knew she wasn't. We got through it, and the main thing is to keep her safe."
Experts have a name for this type of sleep talking, in which a child's eyes are open: confusional arousal. This behavior is in the same category of such sleep behaviors as sleep-walking and night terrors.
"This is very common, and it does not mean the child has any type of psychological problems," says Jodi A. Mindell, a pediatric psychologist and researcher at the Sleep Disorders Center at Medical College of Pennsylvania.
"This can be very disturbing for parents, but the child has no memory of it in the morning," Dr. Mindell says.
This sleep talking usually occurs 1 1/2 to 2 hours after the child falls asleep, when the child is making a transition between the different levels of sleep and more or less gets stuck.
Nightmares, on the other hand, occur in the second half of the night. Sleep terrors are similar to confusional arousal, only more severe. "The child wakes up screaming and looks panicked," Dr. Mindell says.
When a child bolts up in bed, eyes open, and begins babbling or screaming, a parent's instinct is to rush to the child, hold her and offer comfort. But this only makes the child's agitation worse. "If you try to hold the child, the child will really get panicked," Dr. Mindell says. "The child is fine."
Parents also should avoid talking about the episode to the child or in earshot of the child.
"The child has no idea they're doing this, and knowing about it could cause them to worry about falling asleep," Dr. Mindell says.
One thing parents can do is make sure all of the windows and doors in the house are locked and stairways are blocked off.
"Some parents hang a bell from the child's door so it will wake [the parents] up if the child begins to sleepwalk," Dr. Mindell says.
Parents also can make sure the child is getting enough sleep -- 11 to 11 1/2 hours nightly. "Sleep deprivation or loss of sleep makes it worse," Dr. Mindell says.
If the arousal periods occur as frequently as several times a night or several times a week -- or if the child's behavior becomes violent -- the cause could be another underlying sleep disorder. In these cases, parents should discuss the problem with the family doctor.
Can you help?
Here's a new question from a parent who needs your help. If you have tips, or if you have questions of your own, please call our toll-free hot line any time at (800) 827-1092.
* Gruff Grandpa: "We just experienced a terrible visit with Grandpa and Grandma," says J.S. of Shorewood, Minn. "Grandpa was overly disciplinary, and my 3-year-old told me she is scared of Grandpa.How can I communicate that the child-rearing skills that were used on him are outdated?"