Maybe you’ve seen someone do it. Maybe you’ve done it yourself. Maybe you’ve only seen videos of people doing it and you don’t really understand what’s going on. “It” is sleepwalking and, boy, is it a strange thing to find someone doing.
If you’ve ever encountered a sleepwalker in person, you likely felt spooked or weirded out. Sleepwalkers often exhibit glassy, glazed eyes staring into nothing (although it feels like they are staring into your soul).
They do strange things, like brush their teeth or make a sandwich at 3 a.m. Sometimes, they do dangerous things, like attempt to drive a car or walk outside alone in the dark. Sleepwalkers can exhibit funny, silly behaviors or scary, aggressive behaviors.
It’s a phenomenon so well-known, and yet, so mysterious. Everyone knows that sleepwalking happens, but not everyone knows why — or how. With the help of several sleep experts and doctors, we answer your burning questions about sleepwalking.
What is sleepwalking?
Medically termed somnambulism, sleepwalking is literally the act of walking or performing other physical activities while asleep. Sleepwalking usually occurs when a person in a deep stage of sleep is woken up partially or in a manner that triggers physical activity, says Wayne Leslie Ross, senior sleep researcher at InsideBedroom.
Dr. Abhinav Singh, facility director of the Indiana Sleep Center and medical review expert for SleepFoundation.org, explains that a “switch” flips in response to a stimulus. “Any stimulus that wakes you in the middle of the night, such as a dog barking or your spouse snoring, causes your brain to keep trying to flip the switch from wake to sleep,” he says.
“This switch is a little sloppier for certain folks,” which can result in the limbo of half-awakeness, Dr. Singh explains. Essentially, some of your brain wakes up and some of it doesn’t.
Why do people sleepwalk?
“There is still much we do not know when it comes to why it happens and what goes on in the brain when it occurs,” says Frida Rångtel, PHD, sleep educator and science advisor at Sleep Cycle.
Because sleepwalking is related to a defect in the switch from sleep to wakefulness, “this means that deep sleep, combined with the risk of arousal, such as during sleep apnea, [creates a] higher risk of sleepwalking,” Rångtel explains.
People sleepwalk for a number of reasons, genetics being a primary cause. It’s also more common in children, but most children grow out of it. Although the exact causes of sleepwalking are unknown, Rångtel says medical professionals have concluded that the following can trigger sleepwalking or make an existing problem worse:
- Sleep deprivation
- Medical conditions that cause nighttime wake-ups, such as sleep apnea and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
- Alcohol use
- Recreational drugs
- Prescription medications
- Stress or anxiety
- Brain injuries
- Sleeping in new or unfamiliar environments (for example, hotels or overnight camps)
Is sleepwalking a problem?
According to the Mayo Clinic, isolated incidents of sleepwalking don’t usually indicate a problem. Children may exhibit recurrent sleepwalking, but they typically grow out of it by their teen years, the Mayo Clinic reports. Recurrent sleepwalking in adults may signal an underlying sleep, medical or psychological disorder, though.
Is it really dangerous to wake a sleepwalker?
Because no one can anticipate how a sleepwalker will react when roused, it’s best to avoid waking a sleepwalker if possible, Ross says. “Experts continue to discourage attempts to wake a sleepwalking person, as it would be at most times unsuccessful and leave the person shocked, disoriented and confused,” he says.
Getting too close, touching or interrupting a sleepwalker may result in an exaggerated reaction which, in some sleepwalkers, may include aggression. Ross says the best course of action is to gently lead the sleepwalker back to bed without waking them, if possible.
In the case that the sleepwalker is doing something dangerous (such as attempting to drive a car), waking the sleepwalker might be necessary.
Can people see when they sleepwalk?
Yes and no. “Often, a sleepwalker will have a blank gaze with open glassy eyes,” says Dr. Dave Rabin, neuroscientist and board-certified psychiatrist. “While their eyes may be open, they’re not necessarily seeing what they would see if they were awake. They may think they’re in a different room or part of the house.”
This is why sleepwalkers often bump into things, trip or fall, Dr. Singh says — and also why it’s important to keep sleepwalkers away from cars, stairs, bodies of water and other potentially dangerous areas.
Why do sleepwalkers do such weird things?
Dr. Alex Dimitriu, psychiatrist and sleep medicine doctor at Menlo Park Psychiatry and Sleep Medicine, says sleepwalking is an example of a “disorder of confusional arousal.”
“People do weird things at night when they are half awake and half asleep,” he says. “You are confused, because you are half asleep. I compare it to your bed partner poking you in the side every two minutes — you might eventually wake up and say something thoughtless, half asleep. Sleepwalking is not much different.”
Online, amusing videos of sleepwalkers circulate, showing them engaging in odd behaviors. Common sleepwalking behaviors include:
- Cooking and eating, especially strange food combinations that one wouldn’t necessarily eat while fully awake
- Starting one’s usual morning routine, including getting dressed and brushing their teeth
- Bolting from bed or the house
- Talking, shouting or singing at other people, pets, inanimate objects or nothing at all
- Moving furniture around
Dr. Dawn Dore-Stites, sleep advisor to Reverie and sleep disorders specialist at Michigan Medicine Pediatric Sleep Medicine Clinic, explains that sleepwalkers probably do these things because they’re in a body-first state.
“The body is on but the brain is not, leading to a body moving around and engaging in easy behaviors like urinating and eating,” she says, “but that a fully awake brain would not do, like urinating in non-bathroom spaces and eating non-food items.”
How long does sleepwalking last?
Sleepwalkers only amble for a very short time, from just a few seconds up to a half hour, Dr. Singh says. According to the US National Library of Medicine, most sleepwalking episodes last less than 10 minutes.
Do people remember sleepwalking?
Sleepwalking typically occurs during deep, non-REM sleep, so it’s thought that most sleepwalkers don’t recall their nighttime saunters.
However, a study published in 2013 found that some sleepwalkers do remember what they did — and, more interestingly, why they did it. The authors of the study believe some people remember their actions and motivation because different parts of the brain fall asleep while others remain awake.
Is it possible to stop sleepwalking?
Yes, it is possible to treat sleepwalking, experts agree. Much of treatment involves interventions, such as “anticipated awakening,” Dr. Dore-Stites says. Anticipated awakening involves waking up a sleepwalker just before they’re about to start sleepwalking — clearly, this will only work for people who recurrently sleepwalk around the same time each night.
To do it, gently wake the person and have them sit up, take a sip of water or do something else to achieve full awakeness. This can reset the sleep cycle and prevent sleepwalking, Dr. Dore-Stites says.
In many cases, sleepwalking is a symptom of an underlying condition, so treatment involves pinpointing and treating the cause. Improving sleep hygiene and habits can help, too. Sleepwalking is less likely to happen when fewer triggers exist — make sure the room is cool, dark, quiet and comfortable to reduce the chances of partially waking up.
Lastly, practicing relaxation techniques before bed (or at any regular interval) can help. Try deep breathing, meditation, journaling or another calming activity to reduce stress and anxiety before going to sleep.
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.