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?

105 CommentsLeave a comment

  • 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

  • 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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