Updated February 25, 2019
Also known as somnambulism, sleepwalking is when someone walks around while still asleep, yet the brain is partially awake and therefore is capable of complex behaviors. It's a parasomnia, which is unwanted behavior that occurs while you're falling asleep, sleeping, or waking up.
Sleepwalking can involve many different activities, including sitting up in bed, driving, sex (called sexsomnia), getting dressed, taking a shower, cooking, eating, unusual behaviors (such as urinating in the bedroom), and even violent acts. Episodes can last for a few seconds or for 30 minutes or longer.
Sleepwalkers are usually difficult to awaken, and when awakened, are usually confused, and don't remember what happened during their sleepwalking. According to a study published in the National Institutes of Health, it occurs during slow-wave sleep and often during the first third of the night or during other times of increased slow-wave sleep, such as after sleep deprivation.
Though it's often benign, there are potentially serious consequences to sleepwalking. Outside of accidents due to activities during sleepwalking episodes, adult sleepwalkers have a higher frequency of daytime sleepiness, fatigue, depressive and anxiety symptoms.
The two types of sleep cycles are REM and NREM sleep. Stage 1 is when you start to relax into sleep, stage 2 is light sleep, stage 3 is deep sleep, and REM is where you dream. These 4 stages are repeated in 4 to 5 cycles per night. Sleepwalking occurs during deep sleep/stage 3, the deepest phase of non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep, and usually during the first or second sleep cycle. It doesn't normally occur during naps because most naps aren't long enough to get into stage 3 of sleep.
According to a study published in the JAMA Pediatrics, children with one parent who had ever been a sleepwalker were 3 times more likely to sleepwalk. If both parents had sleepwalked, the child is 7 times more likely.
There are many things that can contribute to sleepwalking:
- sleep deprivation
- changes in sleep schedule, such as due to travel
- alcohol use
- magnesium deficiency
- inconsistent sleep schedules
- sedative use
- neuroleptics (drugs to treat psychosis) use
- use of tranquilizers
- use of stimulants
- use of antihistamines (drugs used to treat allergies)
- sleep apnea
- restless legs syndrome (RLS)
- panic attacks
- multiple personality disorder
- acid reflux
Sleepwalkers don't walk with their arms out in front on themselves. They do however appear clumsy, and if their eyes are open, they're often glassy and staring blankly.
If you try to awaken a person who is sleepwalking, it may be difficult to rouse them. If they talk it's often nonsensical or in very short and simple sentences. Sleepwalkers usually have little to no memory of the event.
It's a myth that you shouldn't wake a sleepwalker, though in very rare cases they could become violent. As sleepwalking can be dangerous, it's important that you do wake them to prevent them from walking downstairs, leaving the house, tripping, or doing anything that could get them injured.
Sleepwalking is sometimes associated with sleep terrors, teeth grinding, bedwetting, and rhythmic movements.
In a French study, researchers found that sleepwalking in adults is a potentially serious condition. The lead author of the study, Dr. Yves Dauvillier, explains that sleepwalking may be clearly associated with daytime consequences and mood disturbances, including depression and anxiety, and shouldn't be ignored. The study also found a positive history of violent sleep behaviors, as well as incidents of sleeping partners needing medical care due to injuries caused by the sleepwalker.
Treatments for Sleepwalking
There are no treatments for sleepwalking. According to the National Sleep Foundation, having a good sleep routine may eliminate sleepwalking. Children will usually outgrow their behavior, and adults may consider hypnosis.
It's recommended that you take the following safety measures if you have a sleepwalker in your house:
- Hide car keys before you go to bed, so your sleepwalker doesn't drive.
- Block stairs entrances so they don't fall down them. Otherwise, have the sleepwalker sleep on the first floor if possible.
- Lock doors and windows, and if possible, put an alarm on them to prevent them from leaving.
- Removes obstacles to prevent tripping, such as items on the floor, cords, etc.
- Make sure all weapons, as well as sharp or fragile items are out of reach.
- Children who sleepwalk shouldn't be in a bunk bed.
- According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, up to 4% of adult Americans sleepwalk every year.
- Rates of sleepwalking are much higher in children, especially between ages 3 and 7, and occurs more often in children with sleep apnea and those who experience bed wetting.
- Sleepwalking has been observed in children as early as 2 years old, and the most common age is around 10 years old.
- Around 14% of children have experienced sleepwalking by age 10, and 29% experience it once during childhood.