Sleepwalking – What Causes It And What Should You Do?

image of a man sleep walkingIt’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?

girl sleeping on books

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 May 2012, researchers found that 29.2% of 19,136 adults in a poll claimed to have experienced nocturnal wandering in their lives.

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 – some could 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 sleep apnea.
  • Restless legs syndrome
  • Depression
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder
  • Insomnia
  • Migraines and head injuries
  • Hyperthyroidism

 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) antidepressants like Celexa, Prozac, Zoloft, Lexapro or Paxil.
  • Other mental health medication, such as Chlorpromazine or Lithium.
  • Some over the counter sleep aids containing the antihistamine diphenhydramine.
  • Some prescription sleep aids, such as Zolpidem (Ambien).

4) Other factors

In addition to the above, there is 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:

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?

Tempted as you might be to wake up a sleepwalker, it’s not the best idea. What you can do is try to gently and quietly steer them in the direction of their bed.

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?

Treatment options

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.

Children

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.

Adults

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.

It can also help to pay attention to your sleep hygiene. 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

Your views

Do you sleepwalk? Do you remember what you do? Have you noticed anything that seems to make it more or less likely to happen?

125 CommentsLeave a comment

  • I am 41. When i was in my teens i slept walked often. Cooking food, ironing clothes, dressing for school etc. Never went to the doctor but it stopped eventually. Now at 41, i am finding myself waking up in the bathroom sitting on the toilet. No remembrance of getting there and then its like lights out, i black out again and wake up later on similar as above with sometimes waking up and passing out while standing up. All this is occuring around 4 to 5 hours as i cant sleep till 1am and wake up at 6am.

    Any ideas what to do or how to fix it? I am about to die from lack of sleep.

    • Hi David
      Thanks for your comment. Sorry to hear you’re going through this. I think it’s a good idea to speak to your doctor about what’s happening. I can’t suggest anything else helpful I’m afraid.
      Regards
      Ethan

  • I was up late one night trying to get myself changed to a night mode because I”m afternoon worker. my 10 year old son comes out of his room into the living room where I was and I said to him, buddy what are you doing? he says I’m going to bed. he unlocks the front door and leaves, took me a split second to realize that something was not right. I got up from the couch to see where he went, he had gone over to the neighbours door. I asked him again buddy what are you doing as he was turning the door handle trying to get in. He said to me i’m going to bed. I put my hand on his shoulder and guided him back home, said I LOVED HIM and that I would help him, slowly guided him back to our place and put him to bed. his eyes were red kinda blood shot and wide open with a look of confusion. I am scared that when i go back to afternoon shifts this may happen again. I Pray not because its scary that this can happen and he’s only 10 what should I do? He does have a 16 year older sister but I sill worry. Truly single Mom

    • Hi Robin
      Thanks for your comment. I can understand your concern, especially as he left the house. Sleepwalking in children is very common, and usually they grow out of it. I think you did the right thing, calmly guiding him back to bed. I think it might be a good idea to keep the front door locked and the key in a different place so he cant leave quite so easily. If you’re concerned about it, you can talk to his doctor for their advice too.
      Regards
      Ethan

  • Hi,
    My son is 15 now, he sleepwalked in the past a couple of times, he stops and now yesterday he did it again. the weird thin this times is that he did it twice in one night, He gets out of his bed and goes to the bathroom and shower!! He did it twice. He told us that he didn’t notice until he was in the bathroom and he thought it was time to go to school!! but twice one night sound scary… What do you think?

    • Hi Silvia
      Thanks for your comment. I can understand why you’re concerned, but I don’t think it’s that weird to sleepwalk more than once in a night. However, if he’s doing complex behaviour like showering and it’s regular, then perhaps mention it to his primary care doctor.
      Regards
      Ethan

  • I had to go to the hospital for some tests. As we live over an hour from the hospital, the doctor recommended we stay at a hotel until all the results were in the next day. Upon arriving to the hotel, I had a snack and went to sleep while my husband went to work for a few hours (his office is in the same town as the hospital. Unfortunately, I got out of bed, put on clothes ( thank God!) emptied my cosmetic bag, handbag and luggage, grabbed my insurance cards, passport and two bottles of medication and out the door I went. I walked down the road, but on properties not on the actual highway (again, thank God!). Someone in a restaurant I was passing saw me fall and grab my head. I continued walking holding my head and appeared to be stumbling along aimlessly. My actions caught the attention of people in some of the businesses I passed and they came outside as it was raining and I appeared to need help. At some point I font on the ground and began to vomit profusely until the point of useless dry heaves. Someone called the police and an ambulance. By the time first responders reached me and stopped me, I had a conversation stating that I was in Canada, I was going to miss my train, where was my husband?, and could someone turnoff the lights because I had a migraine. That landed me in the hospital for four days and nights. Fortunately, the hotel got wind of what was happening and phoned my husband who reached the ambulance before I was transported to the hospital. The paramedics told him it appeared I had suffered either a psychotic break or was high on illicit drugs (I’m so square I hate corners, so that didn’t happen). My husband told them he could tell by the look in my face that I was sleepwalking. As in, he looked into my eyes and the light was on but no one was home. I’ve been home for three days now and I see the neurologist tomorrow. Seriously, sleepwalking?! What if I had wandered into traffic? My husband has put bells on every door of our home that leads outside or to the garage and hidden my car keys as well as hired a sitter the last three days out of sheer fear. Am I losing my mind?!

    • Hi Karen
      Thanks for your comment. Sorry to hear you had such a distressing episode. It sounds like a severe case of sleepwalking to me, but I think they are right to recommend more tests considering what happened.
      It’s great that your husband has been working to keep you safe. Hopefully that will help and there will be no more episodes that put you in danger.
      Regards
      Ethan

  • Hello,

    Since June 2018, after a very stressful incident, I started to wake up at 2 am sitting up. This went on every two days, then every 4 days, now every 7 days.
    Now, closer to 5am, I would wake up sitting up twice. This happened after a traumatic day or a traumatic incident.

    What should I do to stop this?

    • Hi Karen
      Thanks for your comment. Have you spoken to a professional about the trauma? It might be helpful to receive some form of counselling to help you work through that. I’d also sugggest doing some relaxation techniques before going to bed to try to calm your mind and get yourself into a peaceful space.
      Regards
      Ethan

  • So, I have a history of sleepwalking and this happened the other day. I woke up (at 2 am) in the bathroom and a family member knocked on the door. I was confused because I had no idea how I got there. When they talked to me about it the day after, I was confused (again) because I remembered it but I thought it happened like 2 weeks ago. I also had a weird dream where I was forced to stand forever and I woke up with really sore legs that I could barely move. I went back to sleep and when I woke up, I was fine. These things were both really weird so let me know if you have any reasoning.

    • Hi Marie
      Thanks for your comment. There’s not much I can say about these experiences to be honest. Sleepwaking and dreams can take many forms, and often the experience is a bit weird. There’s not a lot of point in trying to analyze any one situation in my opinion because you will probably never really know what happened. As long as no harm is being done, and it’s not affecting your daily life or health, it might be better to accept them, and speak to a profesional if they become problematic.
      Regards
      Ethan

  • Im typing this the morning after a night of what I’m unsure may be sleep walking? I’m confused and worried since I have no recollection of the night other than waking up to the feeling of someone dropping on the bed. I fell asleep with a jacket on yet when I woke up after that “drop” it wasn’t on anymore but folded next to me. I’m not entirely sure what else, if anything, occurred. Is it possible I may have sleep walked?

    • Hi Ashely
      Thanks for your comment. It’s possible you sleepwalked. It’s also possible you woke up briefly to take the jacket off and fell asleep again without remembering!
      Regards
      Ethan

  • My dad has been sleepwalking and is on 5 mg of Ambien each night which is a low dose. It was reduced lower to 2.5mg but the walking continues. Do you think the med even this low could still cause it? Upon stopping ambien, can sleepwalking stop immediately? Thanks for any insight.

    • Hi Marie
      It’s possible, but something to discuss with the prescribing medical professional.
      Regards
      Ethan

  • Hey thanks for the article, it’s very helpful. To be honest, i used to wake up to eat. i normally remember some time in the day. Yesturday i went to my fridge for some sweet, but what i can’t remember is going to the other bedroom and put the light on. I was surprised to see it in the morning on !!!! Can that be dangerous!??

    • Hi Maya
      Thanks for your comment and I’m glad the article was useful. I don’t think switching a light on and eating something in the night is dangerous in itself. There are far more worrying things people do when they sleepwalk! If you do something that could cause you or others harm, that’s when it’s more of a concern.
      Regards
      Ethan

  • I am eighty years old, and early this morning I sleepwalked (I think) for the first time. I thought I was awake, got out of bed purposefully on the wrong side, and tried to find my way along the narrow space between the bed and the wall. I couldn’t recognize my bearings, whatever I touched was unfamiliar, and on turning the corner at the foot of the bed I fell backwards full length on the ground. I checked to see whether I had damaged myself, then got up, realizing I was at the foot of the bed, and made my way to the right hand side, where the beside table with the lamp on it was. At this point I must have opened my eyes. They must have been shut before because there was quite enough light in the room to see by. I was now awake. Throughout this episode I had some sense of purpose, but couldn’t remember it afterwards. Was this sleepwalking?

    • Hi Sheila
      Thanks for your comment. To be honest, it’s hard to tell if it was sleepwalking, or just confusion when waking, or even partly a dream about waking! There are various explanations for this kind of short experience. It all depends on the exact details, but that’s not for me to judge based on your brief comment.
      The worrying thing is obviously the fall you had. I hope you didn’t injure yourself. Considering you did this and had a fall, I’d mention it to your personal doctor.
      Regards
      Ethan

      • Dear Ethan:

        Thank you for writing this article. I have a question. I sleepwalked and somehow misplaced my air conditioning remote control.I have been searching for it for days now. I live alone at home these days. I’m scared I will do something stupid like unlock the apartment doors in the middle of the night and walk outside into danger. These days I tend to worry a lot. Is there anything I can do to find what i lost back? And I would like to be your subject to research if possible. I myself find sleepwalking very interesting though dangerous. I was kicked out of the dorm in college many times for sleep talking and sleepwalking

        • Hi Lisa
          You’re welcome! I can’t help you with finding what you lost – you’ll just have to search thoroughly and hope you didn’t throw it away! And I don’t do research involving sleepwalking – thanks for the offer though.
          If you’re worried about doing something dangerous, this is something to talk to your personal doctor about if you’re concerned for your safety. Do try the tips in the article and general advice about following good sleep habits as well.
          Regards
          Ethan

  • My son has been sleepwalking since he was a child. He is 23 now and still doing it he also gets paralysis what causes it? .it scare him when this happens

    • Hi May
      Sorry to hear this. It’s hard to say what causes it exactly. Sleep paralysis can be very scary – have you, or he, seen the article I wrote about it? There are lots of useful tips for dealing with it in that article.
      You can see it here.
      Regards
      Ethan

  • Hello,
    I used to sleepwalk briefly as a kid and the past few nights I’ve been doing it again and I vaguely remember it. All I know is I’m somewhere in my dreams like a train or a building or an airplane and I feel lost and confused and scared. What has triggered me to wake up from sleep walking is when I finally get to my window and see my house. When it triggered me awake I’m drenched in sweat my heart is racing and I am crying. It’s happened 2x now and it’s kinda concerning.

    • Hi Alysa
      Thanks for your comment. I know sleepwalking can be distressing, especially if you wake up feeling like you do. Hopefully, it will be a short passing phase that goes on its own – especially if you try your best to follow the good sleep tips that can help reduce sleep disturbances. But if it continues like this, and is affecting you during the night and day, it’s worth mentioning to your personal doctor.
      Regards
      Ethan

  • My 11 year old daughter sleep walks every single night but recently it’s got worse. She’s started talking now since I’ve moved house and has her own room but never does it while in my bed or anywhere else like a hotel/friends house ect. It’s getting me down as it’s around 11pm so I’m usually asleep. But the past couple nights have been the worse. Last night she was just stood against her bedroom door when the previous night she asked if I had turned the light off. For 6 days she didn’t wake up so I don’t understand it. Any advice would be great.

    • Hi Emily
      For children, moving house is a stressful event, and it’s normal for stressful events to disrupt sleep. Hopefully, it will naturally reduce as she gets used to the new place. You might be able to help that process along by putting in a place a bedtime routine that makes her feel comfortable, reassured, relaxed and positive when she goes to bed. Have a look at this article for more about that.
      Regards
      Ethan

  • I’ve been sleepwalking for years the worst incident is when I went out driving in the car. I went to bed and when I woke up in the morning at 5am I was no longer in my pajamas I was in street clothes and next to my bed was a big bar of Hershey’s chocolate and a receipt from CVS. Last week I had did a doozy I bought a cake and my housemate said to me you didn’t eat that whole cake did you? I assured her I did not she said I can’t find it. I knew right away I was sleepwalking. I told her look in the microwaves it wasn’t in there , I said look in the oven not in the oven ,look in the pantry not in the pantry, finally I said look in the dishwasher, Bingo that’s where it was not only was it in the dishwasher ,but I had wrapped the cake very nicely in Saran Wrap and I put it in the dishwasher and I had turned the dishwasher on. So whenever things are missing I have to start a search. Plus I don’t know if it happens to other people but I wake up in different spots in the house. My son thinks it’s very funny some of the things I say while sleepwalking, last week I asked him if he was a flower as he was guiding me back to bed.

    • Hey Jeri,
      Reading your comment you just gave me a great idea!! When the ole’ lady and kids get pissed at me for eating their food or cake in the fridge the following morning I’m just gonna say I unfortunately suffer from this terrible disorder I came down with. And we all know you don’t make fun of OR MOCK a person with a disorder….

  • I’ve been told I did sleepwalk as a child but have no recollection of it. I’m 50 now and have started sleepwalking again just over the last couple years. I wake up occasionally, once when I walked into a wall and another when I walked into my bedroom door. I’ve had a couple that spooked me. One when I went walking across the bow of our boat while weekending on the water. The latest one, I woke up while yanking hard on our locked back door. I guess I was trying to go outside. I can’t help but wonder how often I’m doing it that I don’t wake up.

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