Sleep talking is a sleep disorder in which someone talks during their sleep without being aware of it.
It can range from mumbling to amusing gibberish, and even be surprisingly conversational.
Sleep experts don’t consider it to be a sleep disorder that can cause any serious harm. In most cases it doesn’t last long, and stops without the need for treatment.
However, it can be annoying and disruptive to a bed partner or roommate’s sleep, leading to insomnia. And in rare cases it might be upsetting because something inappropriate is said.
In this article, I’ll take a closer look at what causes sleep talking. I’ll also suggest ways 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 somniloquy. It’s classified as a parasomnia sleep disorder, which are abnormal behaviors that happen during sleep.
Sleep talking is thought to be partly genetic, and it may be that men sleep talk more often than women.
There haven’t been many studies to investigate how common it is. But one large survey of parasomnias in adults was done in Norway in 2010.
1000 adults took part, with 66% saying they had sleep talked at some point during their life. And 17% said they were current snorers – with an episode in the previous 3 months.
The researchers say the results should be interpreted with caution. But nevertheless, it appears sleep talking isn’t as rare as was once thought.
It’s also estimated that around 50% of children will sleep talk at some point. Most grow out of it in their early teenage years though.
Sleep talking in young children therefore isn’t considered an issue, unless it’s seriously effecting their sleep or associated with regular nightmares or other symptoms.
However, for some people it can continue into adulthood. And in some cases it can even start in adulthood, though this may be a sign of an underlying medical condition developing.
What people say when sleep talking
The content of sleep talking varies from one person to the next. For some, it’s little more than an incoherent mumbling; for others, it can be full sentences that might make perfect sense to anyone listening.
In 2017, researchers in France published a fascinating study into the content of sleep talking.
They enlisted 230 people who had sleep disorders known to involve sleep talking. The volunteers spent two nights in a sleep lab, where the team recorded their sleep talking.
They found that:
- The most common word was ‘no’.
- Negations were in 21% of the spoken instances.
- 9.7% of spoken phrases involved profanities.
- 59% of the content was nonverbal, such as mumbling, shouting, whispering or laughter.
- When people made sentences, they were often correctly spoken.
- Men sleep talked more than women, and also used more profanities.
Unsurprisingly, they concluded that sleep talking often involves an element of conflict!
What if I say something I shouldn’t?
In the comments below, some readers have shared how they said things that upset their partner. For example, talking about an ex-partner, or even insulting their current partner.
It’s important to understand that the content isn’t thought to be relevant to what the person consciously thinks or feels.
Still need convincing? What you say during sleep talking isn’t admissible in courts of law, even if it’s recorded and clear what was said.
It might be embarrassing, but it’s something to talk to your partner about calmly and openly, so it doesn’t become more of an issue than it needs to be.
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 to 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.
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.
And there are two main theories as to why people 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 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. But 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 breakthrough
Sometimes sleep talking occurs during the REM stage, which is when you usually have dreams.
Some scientists 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 while the rest is in sleep mode.
Factors which can increase sleep talking
Following on from those two theories, there are other factors which might influence the chance of you talking in your sleep:
- Anxiety, depression and stress.
- Sleep deprivation.
- Some mental health problems.
- Certain medication, alcohol or recreational drugs.
- If you sleep in an unfamiliar place, or if a child is moved while sleeping. In both of these circumstances, the brain might be more vigilant.
Could it be a different sleep disorder?
There are other sleep disorders which can be associated with sleep talking. They might occur at the same time, or be the cause of the sleep talking.
REM sleep behavior disorder
REM sleep behavior disorder is characterized by appearing to act out your dreams. This could be physically moving around in bed, talking, shouting or even harmful behavior.
It’s not always aggressive actions 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, nightmares can also be a source of vocal nonsense or shouting. It can understandably be very disturbing for parents or a partner.
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.
Confusional arousals, also known as sleep drunkenness can occur in children and adults. The person might appear to wake up and do something in an uncoordinated way, or have a short, confusing conversation.
Ways to deal with sleep talking
There are no outright cures for sleep talking as such. However, if it’s a problem for you then there are some things you could try:
Get medical advice
If you’re showing symptoms of the different sleep disorders mentioned above, it can help to speak to your personal physician or doctor.
For example, if you’re screaming in your sleep, waking up in fear, thrashing or moving around violently, it could be a sign of a different sleep disorder.
And 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.
And in some cases, it might help to talk to a therapist, especially if you feel the content is upsetting or related to anxiety or stress.
Develop good sleep habits
If it’s just simple sleep talking, the best solution might be the classic advice of having good sleep hygiene, such as:
- Limit caffeine and alcohol in your diet
- Make sure you get enough sleep
- Stick to a regular bedtime seven days a week
- Try to tackle serious stress in your life
- Do relaxation exercises at night
- Make sure they get enough sleep
- Give them a consistent bedtime routine
- Ensure they sleep in the same bed when possible
- Don’t let them watch or do stressful, scary activities at night
Find a way to block out the noise
It may be that the person being disturbed needs to cope by blocking out the noise. Understandably, that might not be appropriate, for example if you need to listen out for small children.
But if you don’t have any responsibilities like that, it can be an immediate solution for the partner at least. You might like to try:
- Listen to music on noise cancelling headphones, or fabric sleep headphones
- Listening to white noise
- Sleeping in a different bedroom (if possible) when it’s particularly bad
- See these other tips for reducing bedroom noise
Keep a sleep log
It can be useful to keep a sleep log of activities and what food and drink you had on the days when you sleep talked.
You 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, such as Sleep Talk, which you can find on the iTunes or Android App store.
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 do they mumble or talk about? What do you find makes it more or less likely to happen?
Please feel free to share your story and thoughts in the comments below.