Also known as somnambulism, sleepwalking is one of several parasomnias. This is a term that healthcare professionals use to describe conditions that cause undesired events during sleep.
When a person is sleeping normally, both their bodies and their minds are out for the count. However, when a person walks in their sleep, the body and parts of the subconscious mind are active, while the conscious mind is not.
Sleepwalking is fairly common in youth, affecting up to 17% of children — particularly between the ages of 8–12 years.
However, people can start walking in their sleep at any age. In fact, some experts estimate that around 4% of adults experience sleepwalking episodes.
Most episodes of sleepwalking last for about 10 minutes, but some can last longer. People who encounter someone who is sleepwalking should make sure that they are safe. They can also try to gently help them get back to bed.
Experts say that it is not dangerous to wake someone who is sleepwalking, though shouting can startle the person.
This article will discuss the causes, symptoms, and treatment options associated with sleepwalking.
Research suggests that sleepwalking behavior tends to occur during non-rapid eye movement, or “slow-wave,” sleep, in the first third of an individual’s sleep cycle. It is likely due to a disturbance in the way that the brain cycles between levels of sleep.
Researchers have found that people are more likely to sleepwalk if they have a family member who also sleepwalked at some point in their lives.
As well as genetics, factors that increase slow-wave sleep (such as prior sleep deprivation) and factors that increase arousal from sleep (such as stress, alcohol consumption, and other sleep disorders) may also increase the frequency of sleepwalking in susceptible individuals.
Experts also note some additional factors that have a role in causing sleepwalking. These include:
The key indication that someone is sleepwalking is that they are up and moving around despite not being awake.
Some other symptoms include:
- open eyes, often with a glassy look
- difficulty waking
- talking or mumbling in their sleep
- a prompt return to sleep
- using the bathroom
- sexual activity
It can be dangerous for a person to be moving around when they are not actually awake. Stairs and sharp objects are direct threats.
On rare occasions, people have also been known to drive cars, which is extremely dangerous, as it puts the person and others around them at risk of injury and death.
It is also common for people who walk or engage in other activities while sleeping to have no memory of what they did.
Treating sleepwalking depends on how old the person is.
Because sleepwalking in children is fairly common and often resolves on its own, the first treatment recommendation is often for adults to keep a close eye on any children who tend to walk in their sleep. Preventing injury is the most important part of management.
People have tried scheduled awakenings in children with some success. To try this:
- Note the time the child typically sleepwalks.
- Gently wake the child 15 minutes before this time.
- After a short, gentle interlude, help the child go back to sleep.
- Repeat this process nightly for a month to change their sleeping cycles.
Treatment for adults may begin by keeping a sleep diary and attending an overnight sleep study. This can help a healthcare professional identify what might be interfering with an individual’s sleep.
According to some experts, respiratory problems such as obstructive sleep apnea can play a role in sleepwalking. It may be the case that when treatment brings such breathing problems under control, the sleepwalking stops.
Hypnosis has also been helpful for some people.
Healthcare professionals do not frequently prescribe medication for sleepwalking.
Creating a safe sleeping environment by, for example, locking windows and doors is very important for people who cannot control their sleepwalking by other means.
The first and most important step in preventing sleepwalking is for people to realize that they do walk in their sleep.
Taking action to manage this behavior can involve:
- being careful to prevent sleep deprivation, especially when crossing time zones
- following a regular sleep schedule and making a point of going to bed and getting up at the same time each day
- if the sleepwalker is a child, making sure that babysitters and anyone who may care for the child knows about their tendency to sleepwalk
- installing safety gates around stairs
- sleeping in lower bunks and on the ground floor, if possible
- locking windows and removing hazardous objects, such as glass vases, from the bedroom
- keeping car keys, weapons, and power tools locked up and out of reach of sleepwalkers
- checking with a healthcare professional to make sure that the person is not taking any medications that can trigger sleepwalking, since one study identified 29 drugs that do so
- managing stress with regular exercise, which a person should complete 5–6 hours before going to sleep
Most of the time, experts say that children who walk in their sleep do not need to see a healthcare professional.
On the other hand, adult sleepwalkers should try to see a healthcare professional who specializes in sleep medicine as soon as they notice the habit.
Some researchers report that respiratory problems, particularly obstructive sleep apnea, are the most frequently identified co-occurring conditions associated with sleepwalking.
People with restless legs syndrome or periodic limb movements in sleep may also experience sleepwalking.
Mental health issues may also play a role in sleepwalking. For example, one study found that in the general population, 2–4% of adults walked in their sleep, but in the psychiatric population, 8.5% of adults were sleepwalkers.
Also, although less than 20% of sleepwalkers in the general population started doing so as adults, in the psychiatric population, more than 40% did.
Sleepwalking is a common behavior in children. It is also not rare in adults.
People who sleepwalk can sometimes put themselves and others at risk of injury.
Sleepwalking tends to run in families. Common triggers for sleepwalking include prior sleep deprivation and factors that increase arousal from sleep, such as stress and alcohol consumption.
Children tend to stop sleepwalking as they mature, and adults often stop doing so if a healthcare professional identifies and treats the person’s underlying trigger.
Creating a safe environment for sleeping and maintaining a regular sleep schedule can also help address this issue.