Most people think of sleepwalking as the punchline in a cartoon. They imagine the sleeper clumsily walking with arms outstretched, narrowly avoiding humorous hazards — such as a misplaced garden rake.
While it isn’t extremely common, sleepwalking does happen in real life. Dr. Gary Levinson, a board-certified internal medicine doctor with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group, says, “Sleepwalking is a typically harmless disorder that occurs during light stages of sleep — before the rapid eye movement (REM) cycle sets in.” It happens most frequently in children and usually goes away within a few years or as they approach adolescence.
During the night, a sleepwalker may get out of bed, appear confused and walk slowly with their eyes open. They don’t usually dream during their experience, and will have no memory of it after they wake up. It’s a good rule of thumb not to wake or yell at them. Instead, Dr. Levinson suggests gently leading them back to their bed. Do not try to restrain them.
A person is more likely to sleepwalk if someone in their family has experienced it, but there are other causes as well. Sleepwalking may be triggered by other conditions that increase the likelihood of waking up during the night — sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome or sleep deprivation. Short-acting sleeping pills, such as zolpidem (Ambien®), alcohol, lithium or anti-psychotics can cause episodes as well.
Although sleepwalking isn’t a dangerous condition, there’s a possibility of accidental self-harm. It’s important for sleepwalkers to maintain a safe sleeping environment by blocking staircases and locking windows to prevent falling. Some may find it helpful to place padding on nearby furniture or floors and lower their mattress to the floor. It’s a good idea to remove all dangerous objects from the bedroom, such as firearms or knives, and lock them elsewhere.
To prevent sleepwalking, Dr. Levinson encourages patients to “maintain a regular sleeping schedule and avoid sleep deprivation, alcohol and stress. Speak with your doctor if sleepwalking becomes disruptive.”
Sleep talking is far more common than sleepwalking and can occur on its own or as part of a more serious sleeping disorder. Sleep talking can accompany sleepwalking, sleep terrors, confusional arousal (waking up disoriented) or REM behavior disorder (acting out dreams).
“Sleep talking can be caused by many things — stress, lack of sleep, alcohol or fever are most common to blame,” says Dr. Levinson.
Avoid sleep talking by practicing good sleep hygiene. Maintain a regular sleeping schedule, keep the room dark and cool, and avoid alcohol before bed. Speak with your doctor if you experience chronic disruptive sleep talking.
For the news media: To talk with Dr. Gary Levinson about sleepwalking or sleep talking for an upcoming story, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at firstname.lastname@example.org.