Sleepwalking – What Causes It And What Should You Do?

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?

someone sleeping on books

It’s thought that children who sleepwalk regularly may be more tired during the day.

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 a study published in the neurology journal stated 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, 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:

 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:

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?

sleepwalking man mowing the lawnTempted 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.

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

Your views

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?

78 CommentsLeave a comment

  • When I was young, I used to commonaly wake up ether beside the dinner table or under the dinner table in the middle of the night. I would wake up confused and run back to bed. I dont do sleepwalking anymore I think.

  • Recently I have been sleep walking. Last time I did this I pretty much remember heading to my kitchen to open the door so whoever I was dreaming about could carry something outside. I moved things around to make space . I also dream quite alot and have nightmare also. Not sure if that goes along with the sleep walking. This last episode scares me because I was opening my door. I’m not sure what might have happened next. Anything you could tell me would be greatly appreciated.

    • Hi Barbara
      Thanks for your comment. I can understand why you might be concerned, as many people are when they realize that they are doing things in their sleep they have no control of. But there’s not much I can tell you about this other than if it’s worrying you, bring it up with your doctor, and to try the advice in the article and this website about good sleep habits. It can sometimes help the frequency of bad dreams and sleep walking to try to keep healthy routines where sleep is concerned.
      Regards
      Ethan

  • I sleepwalk nightly. My boyfriend apparently shoves me back down into the bed so I don’t get up but occasionally he’s not successful and I walk around the apartment. I wake up angry usually. If my boyfriend wakes me up then I find myself waking up in the middle of rationalizing why I’m walking around. It’s really not effecting my sleep very much as I don’t usually remember unless I get woken up. However, it makes my boyfriend sleep terribly. He wakes up whenever I start to get up which is numerous times a night.

    Not sure what my issue is. Maybe stress.. I’m a graduate student.. but I’ve always slept walked. My parents literally used to lock their bedroom door so I wouldn’t walk into it in the middle of the night. :( thoughts?

    • Hi Jordyn
      Thanks for your comment. If you think stress could be a cause, then it sounds like it might be. Perhaps try as best you can to reduce stress in your life, and do some calming activities before going to bed. If it’s disrupting your partner’s sleep so much, are you able to sleep in separate beds? That’s what many people do, including me!
      Regards
      Ethan

  • I just read this article after waking up to a smell of burning food. I thought the people upstairs were cooking at 6 am, but as I got closer to the stairs, I didn’t smell it. I went into my kitchen and expected to see a burner that had been bumped on. Instead, I found the oven set to 395 degrees. Inside, was a cookie sheet with completely burnt french fries on it. The strange thing about it is that I vaguely remember doing it. In my mind, I was making dinner for my kids (one kid is away and the other was sleeping). I remember thinking that the big was really big so I should only make half. It was actually a standard size bag that I would normally have cooked the entire bag.

    I am very concerned about this because I could have burned down the house. I am a third shift worker, but I only started that about 5 months ago. I often have days that I get less than 4 hours of sleep. On Fridays, I go to a second job straight after the nighttime job, so I rarely sleep at all that day. I also have sleep apnea and I don’t wear my mask. I know, bad idea, but I throw it off in my sleep. Lastly, my father and brothers have been known to walk and talk in their sleep. For my brothers, it seems to be alcohol related usually. I do drink occasionally, but didn’t drink at all last night. I have sleep walked (I’m not sure what the past tense of this is??) a few times before, but it was in my younger days. However, I have always been an active sleep talker. I am interested to hear your thoughts on this. Thank you.

    • Hi Nichole
      Thanks for your comment. I can understand the feeling of doing something in your sleep but only having a vague recollection. Just 2 weeks ago I discovered I had unpublished several articles on this site one morning. I had a vague recollection of doing some work in the night, but couldn’t for the life of me work out when or why I’d decided to do something so counter-productive! It was a very unsettling feeling knowing that I’d done something that would have negative consequences.
      Of course, in your case the worry must be even greater, knowing that the consequences could have been dangerous, so I can appreciate your concern. I think it’s very possible your behavior is related to having a very disrupted sleep pattern and sleep deprivation. Perhaps this is a warning to have a think about how you can really focus on trying to get adequate sleep. Even if your very busy life means your sleep is restricted, it’s still worth trying to maximise the sleep. Have a read of my recent article with sleep tips for shift workers for some ideas.
      I think taking some steps to minimise the risk would also be beneficial, just in case you repeat it. Are you able to turn off the oven before going to bed, or lock the kitchen door and put the key somewhere else other than in the lock?
      Finally, I think speaking to your primary care doctor about this would be beneficial. When we a act out our dreams to such an extent it could be an indicator of a sleep disorder such as REM sleep behavior disorder, which might need treatment depending on the severity.
      Regards
      Ethan

  • Recently i have experienced second time, i turned switch on the light & turn my fan at fast speed and arranged my laptop on its right place, at morning i saw changes around me and i don’t remember that it all by done me, i was quite sacred.

  • My son sleepwalks and in his episodes he seems to be scared or running away from something. Sometimes he’ll confuse me for whatever is scaring him and other times he includes me in his search and will tell me to be quiet and check around the corner. I try to redirect him back to bed and it’s a hit or miss. Other times if redirecting does not work, I ask him questions about something I know he likes in order to distract him and get him to relax and not be scared. He’s 9 and has been experiencing these since he was 3.5 or 4. Because I never know what triggers his adventures I’m not sure if he needs medical interventions. How can I determine this?

    • Hi Adrian
      Thanks for your comment. It sounds like you’re doing the right thing by trying to redirect him and be gentle with him rather than waking him up suddenly. As I said in the article, it’s hard to know what’s causing sleep walking in any particular case. But it’s still worth talking it over with his primary care doctor to see what they think. I can understand how you must be distressed if he sleep walks and mistakes you for something scary that he’s imagining. So perhaps it would be good for you too to talk it over with a profesional. In the meantime, try to ensure he has a good sleep pattern, and does something relaxing and calming before bed. Perhaps try talking to him about what might be upsetting him or making him anxious in his daily life, and helping him talk through it as well, in case that’s a trigger.
      Regards
      Ethan

  • I have been a sleep walker since I was very young, but I did not grow out of it. I’m in college and to this day I still sleep walk and sleep talk regularly. I know if I’m anxious it will be worse, but it also happens when I’m relaxed. It hasn’t really caused me any problems other than some pretty non-restful nights. Should I have a sleep study done? Or is this okay?

    • Hi there
      Thanks for your comment. It’s up to you really, though I’d recommend speaking to your primary care doctor about it to see what they think. As long as it’s not causing you any problems and you feel you get enough sleep in general, then it’s something many people learn to live with. Having said that, it’s a good idea to try as much self-help as possible, especially working on your anxiety in the long-term on a daily basis if you know you’re an anxious person and that it affects your sleep.
      Regards
      Ethan

  • I do a lot when I’m asleep. I live on my own and have often woke up with fresh cuts and bruises showing. Friends have stayed over and they would say to me i woke them up with a fright cause they would hear something and wake up and I’m sitting up laughing but not saying anything. My mam woke up at 4Am before and went to the kitchen and I was in the kitchen making a cup of tea trying to have a smoke too 😓

  • I never knew that I sleep walked until my friend told me so..I’m at a boarding school..and people avoid me as they think im weird .what should I do?

    • Hi Thembie
      Thanks for your comment. Having been to boarding school myself, I can understand your worry! I think the thing to do is not allow them to make you feel bad for doing something that’s very common, not weird at all and even adults do. Don’t it become something they can get a reaction from you for talking about or teasing. Getting a reaction is one of the things that makes kids repeat mean behavior. I also recommend talking to your house master or teacher who runs the boarding house about it. Perhaps they can help you decide how to deal with it, and deal with being avoided at the moment. From my memory of boarding school, who gets avoided or not changes regularly at school, so I’m sure it will pass in time.
      And of course, actually dealing with the sleep walking would be good too. Do your parents know you do it? Have you spoken to them or your doctor about it? Perhaps that would be useful to do, and also speak about how you’re feeling at school. If it’s stressing you out, making you anxious and you’re not happy there, it’s important to talk about that.
      Regards
      Ethan

  • last night i was asleep and i got up and came into sitting room and pulled open curtins this was 4 oclock in the morning.Never done this or anything like that before.Its frightening and scary i would like to know why it happened please let me know

    • Hi Mary
      Thanks for your comment. It’s kind of impossible to say exactly why it happened last night. The causes of sleep walking above are the ones to think about. Some people do suddenly experience sleep walking after a long period without doing it. It’s usually nothing to be concerned about. But if you do feel very distressed by it, mention it to your doctor when you see them.
      Regards
      Ethan

  • I never knew that sleepwalking and talking were a disorder I used to walk into my parents room and stare at then while still asleep every night till my mom put me back into my room and i never knew till she told me I still talk in my sleep to this day still no idea why

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