The medical profession doesn’t consider sleep talking to be a serious sleep disorder on the whole.
However, if your sleep talking is waking you up or having an adverse effect on your partner’s quality of sleep, understandably you may want to try to stop it.
You might also be worried about saying something inappropriate or divulging a secret. Or perhaps you’re concerned by your children sleep talking and what it means for their health.
In this article I’ll take a closer look at what causes sleep talking. I’ll also suggest ways that might help you to control it if it’s causing difficulties for you, your partner or children.
What is sleep talking and who experiences it?
The medical name for sleep talking is somnliloquy and it’s classified as a parasomnia sleep disorder. Other parasomnias include sleep walking and night terrors. In fact, it often occurs at the same time or as part of these other disorders.
There’s very little research carried out into sleep talking. I suspect this is in part due to the difficulty of identifying suitable subjects, and because it’s not considered to be a serious sleep problem.
Sleep talking is thought to be partly genetic, and more common in males. Though researchers are still undecided about the genetic causes of sleep disorders. It’s most commonly seen in children and it’s estimated that around 50% of children will sleep talk at some point. Most grow out of it in their early teenage years.
Sleep talking in young children therefore isn’t considered an issue, unless it’s seriously effecting their sleep or associated with regular nightmares.
However, for some people it can continue into adulthood, with around 5% of adults talking in their sleep. And in some cases it can even start in adulthood, though this may be a sign of an underlying medical condition developing.
If you live by yourself you probably don’t even know if you sleep talk. But for some the main issue is disturbing a partner’s sleep, which can lead to tension and embarrassment.
What might I say whilst sleep talking?
Since your brain is effectively unconscious whilst sleep talking, it’s unlikely that you’ll say anything sensible. It’s more likely to be random phrases, even if they’re prompted by past or future events.
Children will often say something based on a recent event, such as watching a cartoon on TV.
In some cases people have reported that what the person is saying appears to be making sense.
They can even appear to have a conversation without them waking up. But more often than not any talk won’t be coherent or relevant.
The scientific reality is that a lot of effort goes into having a sensible conversation.
In addition to the brain needing to decide what to say, it has to take control in a complex and coordinated way of your breathing, throat, tongue and mouth muscles.
When you’re asleep, however, your brain normally relaxes or even disables your muscles. So with reduced muscle strength, sleep talking ends up being very different from normal speech.
Why do people sleep talk?
To help answer this question it’s helpful to have a quick look at the stages of sleep. During the night we go through several sleep cycles, each containing different phases of sleep with varying levels of brain and body activity.
A typical cycle might last 90-120 minutes and consist of a number of stages including: light sleep; deep sleep; back to light sleep again; and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. But as the night progresses the quantity and order of each stage can change.
For example, you’ll usually have more deep sleep in the first third of the night and more REM sleep later on. So there are two main theories as to why you sleep talk, based mainly on which point it occurs during the cycle:
During transitions between sleep stages
When you change from one sleep stage to another, you sometimes have a very short awakening. This can be a full or only partial wakening.
During this brief moment the part of your brain responsible for speech can sometimes be more awake, while other parts of your brain might be entering a new stage, such as deep sleep.
During this changeover you might do or say something, but have no awareness of it because the conscious part of your brain is, well, not really conscious.
The dream break-through
Sometimes sleep talking occurs during the REM stage, which is when you usually have dreams. Not all scientists agree, but some suggest that the speech-controlling part of your brain somehow switches on, and that you repeat what’s being said or occurring in your dream at the time.
In either case the same basic principle applies: part of your brain is switched on when the rest is in sleep mode.
Factors which may increase sleep talking
Following on from those two theories, there are other factors which may influence the chance of you talking in your sleep:
- If you’re sleep deprived, you may need more deep sleep to recover the lost sleep. It’s believed that deep sleep is the most likely time for sleep talking.
- If you sleep in an unfamiliar place, or if a child is moved while sleeping. In both of these circumstances your brain may be more vigilant, which conflicts with the need to sleep, making that half-awake moment in the theories above more likely to occur.
- If you’re ill, especially with a fever, it’s more likely that you’ll sleep talk.
- Some mental health issues can increase the likelihood of sleep talking.
- If you’re on certain medication or taking other substances like recreational drugs.
- If you’re under a lot of emotional stress.
Could it be a different sleep disorder?
There are a few other sleep disorders which are sometimes mistaken for sleep talking. Although simple sleep talking is quite obviously that, some people may find that the following seem familiar:
REM sleep behavior disorder
REM sleep behavior disorder is usually characterized by physically acting out your dreams. It often results in violent behavior in bed, shouting or making other loud noises. You can read more in my article about REM sleep behavior disorder.
So if you, or someone in your house, are doing this you’ll probably know about it. It doesn’t have to be violent though; I was once woken up by a partner rubbing my stomach. When I asked what they were doing, they said “I’m stirring the soup!”
Usually experienced by children, night terrors are like a more extreme version of nightmares. The child may thrash about in bed or sit up and scream things while still asleep. It can understandably be very disturbing for parents to witness.
Someone who has Catathrenia, also known as nocturnal groaning, will usually emit a long and/or loud groaning sound. It can embarrassingly sound like a sexual noise.
Ways to deal with sleep talking
Medically there are no magic bullet cures for sleep talking unfortunately. However, if it’s a problem for you then there are some things you could try:
Check it isn’t a different sleep disorder
If you’re showing symptoms of the different sleep disorders mentioned above, you might want to get some medical advice just to be on the safe side.
For example, if you’re screaming in your sleep, waking up in fear, thrashing or moving around violently, you might have a more serious condition.
If you have any breathing problems whilst sleeping it’s important to seek medical advice to rule out potential problems such as sleep apnea.
If it starts suddenly as an adult having never had it before, you may want to talk to a doctor, especially if it persists for more than a few days. You can also find out if any medication you’re taking could be causing your nocturnal talking.
Have good sleep habits
If it’s just simple sleep talking, then sometimes the only solution is the classic advice of having good sleep hygiene. You might try limiting caffeine and alcohol in your diet.
Make sure you get enough sleep, and try to manage any serious stress in your life. For more tips you can have a look at the section about sleep hygiene.
For children, try to make sure they get enough sleep, have a regular sleep pattern and that they sleep in the same bed when possible.
Find a way to block out the noise
If changes to your routines don’t help then unfortunately it may be that the person being disturbed needs to find a way to block out the noise. This may not always be appropriate, for example if you need to listen out for small children.
But if you don’t have any responsibilities like that, then it may be your only option. You could either try some earplugs for sleeping, custom-made sleep headphones with some relaxing music or use a white noise machine.
Keep a sleep log
You may find it useful to keep a sleep log of activities and what food and drink you had on the days when you sleep talked. You may of course need your partner’s help to tell you when you’ve disturbed them by talking or shouting whilst asleep.
Or you could use one of the Apps aimed at recording sleep talking. There are some free ones, but if you want to avoid pop-up adverts then a good one is Sleep Talk, which you can find on the iTunes or Android app store.
I used the Sleep Talk App and found it to be very easy to use. You activate it when you go to bed, with the option of a delay before it starts. It only records when there’s noise above a certain level, with three sensitivity settings.
The presentation of data is clear as shown here. You simply click on one of the bars and play to hear what was going on during the night.
It’s clear from some of the reviews of this and other Apps that many of people use them merely for fun. But I think it can also have a serious use in helping you try to find out when you sleep talk and how much.
If you decide to consult your doctor with your problem, then a detailed log of when it occurs might be useful.
Share your story
Do you or someone you know sleep talk? What form does it take? Is it annoying or sometimes amusing? Have you found anything which makes it more or less likely to occur? Please feel free to share your story and thoughts in the comments below.