It’s estimated that close to 30% of people sleepwalk at some point during their lives. It’s therefore quite likely either you or someone in your family has done so.
It’s one of the most well-known sleep disorders and is generally completely harmless. But it can still be worrying, especially for parents who find their children sleepwalking.
In this article I’ll look at the current medical thinking around sleepwalking and possible causes. And I’ll discuss measures that might help reduce the likelihood of it happening.
I’ll also answer two of the most common questions people ask about sleepwalking:
- Is it dangerous to wake someone while they sleepwalk?
- Can sleepwalkers remember what they did?
What happens during sleepwalking
Also known by the medical term Somnambulism, sleepwalking is a sleep disorder in the category called parasomnias. Other parasomnias include sleep talking and sleep paralysis, and they have in common strange behavior or experiences in your sleep.
Not everyone sleepwalks by simply walking slowly around the house; behavior can range from simply sitting up in bed to more mentally demanding activities like preparing food. And in some rare cases, even potentially dangerous activities like driving a car.
It’s also interesting that the common belief used to be that sleepwalking was automatic. However, research in 2013 found that many people thought there was a hidden rationale for their actions whilst sleepwalking, even if they were illogical.
How can you tell if someone is sleepwalking?
Sleepwalking occurs during the deep sleep stage of sleep – in the first third of the night usually. Although sleepwalkers might look awake because their eyes are open, they won’t be fully conscious and may have a blank expression.
They won’t make normal eye contact with you, and although if you talk to them they might say something back, when they wake up they may not remember what happened.
However, the research in 2013 suggests that many people, especially adults, will actually recall their sleepwalking experience.
Some sleepwalkers will eventually go back to bed as if nothing ever happened; others might wake up in another room and understandably be quite confused.
The length of time people sleepwalk can differ; it could be just for a few seconds, or up to half an hour or longer. Some studies suggest that episodes of around ten minutes are most common.
Also note that it can easily be confused with what’s called REM Sleep Behavior Disorder. This is another sleep disorder where a person literally acts out what’s going on in their dream.
How many people sleepwalk?
Unfortunately, there have been very few studies or surveys to find out exactly how many people sleepwalk. It’s clear though that sleepwalking in children is much more common than adults.
Moreover, it’s also known that it’s predominantly younger children who sleepwalk. The main age that it occurs is disputed; some studies found 4 to 8 is the main age bracket, but others 8 to 12.
What’s agreed though is that puberty is when most children will stop, with only a few continuing to experience this sleep disorder as teenagers and adults.
In that same survey just 3.6% said they had wandered in the night in the last year, once again showing that it seems more common when younger.
It was later clarified that not all of these will be sleepwalking incidents, for example some may be due to epilepsy, alcohol intoxication or dementia.
Nevertheless, the survey does still illustrate that a large number of people sleepwalk at some point in their lives.
Why does it happen?
As is often the case with sleep disorders, the exact causes of sleepwalking aren’t fully understood. One reasonable theory is similar to that which helps explain sleep talking.
When you sleep, you cycle through different sleep stages. When transitioning in and out of the deep sleep stages, it’s possible that part of your brain remains shut down while another wakes up temporarily – the part which is responsible for movement.
And so in that out-of-sync moment you’re both unconscious and moving at the same time. Again though, the finding of the Montreal study suggests that, in some people, there may be more of a conscious influence or motivation than previously believed.
Despite the lack of a clear cause, there are certain things which seem to make it more likely that you or your children will walk in your sleep. Let’s take a look at each in turn:
1) If it runs in the family
Sleepwalking is thought to have a strong genetic link. If one parent has a past history of it, even as a child, then it’s more likely that their children will also do so.
And if both parents have sleepwalked, then the chances are much higher that you will. The survey above found that 30.5% of nocturnal wanderers had a family history of sleepwalking.
2) Other medical conditions and sleep disorders
Sleepwalking is thought to be more common if you have certain medical conditions or other sleep disorders, such as:
- Sleep-related breathing disorders like Obstructive Sleep Apnea
- Restless Legs Syndrome
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
- Migraines and head injuries
3) Anti-depressants, sleeping pills and other medication
The following medications are all thought to potentially increase the likelihood of sleepwalking:
- Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRI) anti-depressants like Celexa, Prozac, Zoloft, Lexapro or Paxil.
- Other mental health medication, for example Chlorpromazine or Lithium.
- Some over the counter sleep aids containing the anti-histamine diphenhydramine.
- Some prescription sleep aids, such as Zolpidem (Ambien).
4) Other factors
In addition to the above, there are a range of factors which crop up time and time again as possible causes of many sleep problems, including sleepwalking.
Most people who have researched other sleep disorders will recognize these usual suspects:
- Stress and tiredness
- Sleep deprivation and fatigue
- Sleeping somewhere new
- Recreational drugs
Indeed, research suggests that in predisposed people any underlying cause or situation that disrupts sleep can result in episodes of sleepwalking.
Can you wake up a sleepwalker?
If they resist, then let them go about their nocturnal business, as long as no harm will come of it, and simply keep an eye on them.
And this is the key point – reacting to their behavior and keeping a sleepwalker safe should be your priority.
This might mean keeping doors and windows locked, putting up a gate on the stairs, or keeping both children and adults away from knives, fires or electrical points.
You can wake someone up from sleepwalking if it’s absolutely necessary. But if you have to, do it gently and don’t startle them. You should then give them time to come round, as they will probably be disorientated and confused for a few minutes.
What can you do about it?
There’s no specific medication or treatment for sleepwalking. Sometimes doctors might prescribe a benzodiazepine like Clonazepam, or even anti-depressants, but only in the short-term. It’s also been found that hypnotherapy can be useful for some adults.
There are, however, things that might help and also advice for what you should do if you feel that you or your children’s sleepwalking is causing you concern.
Sleepwalking in children is very common, and they usually grow out of it. So if it’s only occasional, and doesn’t cause any real problems then the advice is usually to just put up with it, keep them safe and they will eventually stop as they grow older.
Sleepwalking in adults, particularly if it results in dangerous or unwanted behavior, may need a referral to a sleep specialist. They may recommend you have a sleep study carried out to check that you don’t have another sleep disorder like Apnea.
If any of the factors in the above section about the causes of sleepwalking apply to you then it could help to talk to a doctor. For example if you’re taking any of the medications listed, a doctor may consider changing them.
And then of course there’s the concept of following good sleep hygiene techniques. This can go a long way to help reduce factors such as stress, anxiety and sleep deprivation.
Some of the key sleep hygiene areas you could consider to reduce the likelihood of sleepwalking are:
- Have a stable sleep routine – go to bed and get up at the same time each day
- Don’t miss out on sleep
- Sleep in the same bed each night, and make sure children have their own regular bed
- Deal with any stress in your life as best possible
- You can try to minimize your reaction to stress in your life with relaxation techniques
- Don’t drink alcohol or caffeine late in the day
I’m interested to know what your experience is. Do you sleepwalk? Can you remember what you did? Have you noticed anything that seems to make it more or less likely to happen?