Is it normal for children to talk in their sleep?
In the vast majority of cases, a child’s sleep talking is completely normal and nothing to worry about. According to Judith Owens, M.D., director of sleep medicine at Children’s National Medical Center, “sleep talking is extremely common in both adults and children.” (Parents, May 2011, p. 19) Around 50% of children talk in their sleep at least occasionally. (Gibbs, 2007) So long as a child wakes up well-rested and ready to start the day, their nighttime chatter is nothing to worry about.
Why Do Kids Talk In Their Sleep?
During sleep, parts of a child’s brain are still active while other parts are turned off. Sleep talking typically occurs when a child is dreaming. Normally, our brains have an inhibitor in place that keeps us from acting out what our mind mulls over. It wouldn’t be good if during sleep we where all meandering around unconsciously and walking over cliffs. Sleep talking occurs when this inhibition mechanism slips up, allowing a child to voice out their dreams. Children are more likely to talk in their sleep than adults because the brain regions that inhibit these unconscious thoughts during sleep are still developing.
What does it mean when a child talks in their sleep?
It’s quite common for concerned parents to read more into a child’s sleep-talking than is actually there. It is true that sleep-talking can reflect a child’s dreams, and dreams can be an indication of a child’s inner stirrings and real-world experiences. However, dreams are far more likely to be random, nonsensical gibberish as anything else. The idea that dreams are a deeply meaningful riddle that once solved will peer deep into a person’s psyche is nonsense.
As a child sleeps, their brain is in the process of consolidating information learned during the day. This process takes various chunks of information, recalls them, sorts them out along with past information, then tucks them away into memory or discards what it deems as not very useful. But as a person’s mind is on autopilot running through these recollections, the parts of the brain that normally manage such stirrings and string them together into a coherent narrative are also resting. What you end up with are a bunch of random, disconnected thoughts.
This is why you might have a dream about getting into your bathing suit to take a swim in a chocolate birthday cake before your boss shows up wearing your daughter’s tutu with the ketchup stain and asks you about this week’s grocery list. Dreams are a sort of mish-mash of various things thrown together at a time when the brain regions that usually sort and interpret these various meanderings are offline.
Dreams also incorporate what a child experiences through television or other media. So a child who starts tossing and turning and saying “please don’t get me” is more likely to be reacting to the Harry Potter movie they watched earlier that week than an actual real-world experience. (Parents forget that media experiences are actual experiences as far as a child’s brain is concerned.) If your child utters something specific, like “Mommy, please stop hitting me, I promise I’ll be good,” then a little further investigation may be warranted. But otherwise, I wouldn’t try to read too much into what a child says during their sleep.
When does a child’s sleep-talking become a problem?
There are a few situations in which talking in their sleep can become a problem for children:
- If her sleep-talking is interfering with a good night’s sleep and your child wakes up groggy or irritable.
- If the content of a child’s sleep-talking is consistently negative, exhibiting fear, anger, and so on. This could be a sign of an underlying disturbance or unresolved stress.
- If their sleep talking is loud enough that it’s disturbing a sibling.
Dealing with a child who talks in their sleep
- If a child’s sleep talking is disturbing a sibling, consider investing in a fan or some other white noise device that will drown out the sleep talker.
- If sleep talking is interfering with their own sleep, consider taking your child to a cognitive behavioral therapist who specializes in sleep disorders. There is no medical way to control a child’s dreams, but there are many exercises and behavioral routines that can help diminish nightmares or sleep-talking.