Sleepwalking is a type of sleep disorder known as a parasomnia.
A parasomnia is an unusual behavior that a person experiences as they’re falling asleep, while they’re sleeping, or during arousals from sleep. These behaviors vary considerably in terms of characteristics, severity, and frequency.
Parasomnias can be categorized based on the part of the sleep cycle where they occur. Sleepwalking happens during nonrapid eye movement (NREM) sleep. It usually takes place in the deep stage of NREM sleep, also known as stage N3 or slow-wave sleep.
Other parasomnias that are also classified as NREM parasomnias include:
- sleep talking
- confusional arousals
- night terrors
Sleepwalking episodes occur earlier in the night when most slow-wave sleep occurs. It usually involves routine activities that can range from sitting up in bed to walking to the bathroom. In some extreme cases, sleepwalkers may perform tasks like:
- getting dressed
- moving furniture
Sleepwalking most commonly occurs in children ages 4 to 12, but it can also affect adults.
Because sleepwalking can lead to falls and injuries, seeking treatment and taking safety measures in your home are vital if you or someone you live with displays this behavior.
Did you know?
Sleepwalking is also known as somnambulism.
Sleepwalking can be a sign of an underlying medical condition, like:
- restless leg syndrome (RLS)
- obstructive sleep apnea (OSA)
- gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
A doctor may wish to test you for these conditions, which are all treatable.
Sleepwalking also has a genetic link. If either of your parents has a history of sleepwalking, chances are you may sleepwalk too.
In some instances, medications can cause sleepwalking, especially if taken with alcohol. These include:
- zolpidem (Ambien, Edluar), a sleep medication
- sodium oxybate (Xyrem), a narcolepsy medication
- certain antihistamines
Sleepwalking is most likely to take place during slow-wave sleep and early in the night — about 1 to 2 hours after going to sleep, according to Seattle Children’s Hospital.
Sleepwalking does not typically occur during a nap because the sleep achieved is not deep enough.
Symptoms can vary from person to person but may include:
- sitting up in bed and opening and closing your eyes
- having a glazed-over or glassy expression in your eyes
- walking around your home performing everyday activities, like turning the lights on or off
- speaking or moving in a way that does not make sense
By definition, sleepwalkers should have no recollection of their sleepwalking episodes.
Did you know?
Contrary to popular belief, you can and should awaken a sleepwalker.
But keep in mind that a sleepwalking person is typically difficult to wake and will initially be confused about where they are.
Wake them gently so as not to startle them. Gently lead the individual back to their bed.
Sleepwalking is not always a cause for concern, and most children grow out of it.
If your sleepwalking has led to injury or you frequently experience several episodes in a row, you may want to contact a doctor. They can rule out any potential medical conditions that may be causing the problem.
To help you prepare for your appointment, make a sleep log and a sleep diary. Aim to fill them out in the morning and not at night.
You’ll use the sleep log to list when you go to bed and when you wake up.
The sleep diary will contain information about your daily routines as they relate to sleep, like:
- whether you exercised
- what you ate and drank, especially the foods or drinks you consumed before sleeping
- what you dreamt about
- how you felt when you woke up the next day
Since you may not be aware of the full extent of your sleepwalking symptoms, talk with others in your household about your patterns. Ask them to describe your symptoms, and record what they say in your sleep diary as well.
If your doctor suspects that you have an underlying sleep disorder like OSA, they may recommend you undergo an in-lab sleep study known as polysomnography.
During polysomnography, sleep specialists monitor your brain waves, heart rhythms, and other vital signs while you’re asleep. This information can help your doctor diagnose any potential sleep disorders.
Medication and other medical treatments are not usually necessary. If you have a child who’s prone to sleepwalking, you can gently redirect them back to bed.
If an underlying medical condition like OSA is causing your sleepwalking, treating the condition may help minimize sleepwalking episodes. This is why you may want to contact a doctor if sleepwalking is a persistent issue. You’ll want to ensure that there’s no underlying medical condition causing it.
Because you’re not as aware of your surroundings when you’re asleep, you risk injuring yourself, particularly by tripping and falling. If you’re prone to sleepwalking, you may need to evaluate your home for potential hazards that could lead to tripping.
Safety measures to take include:
- taping electrical cords against the wall
- locking doors and windows before going to bed
- keeping furniture out of any pathways
- adding a gate around your stairs if you have an upstairs bedroom (to prevent falling down the stairs)
If your sleepwalking continues, medications like benzodiazepines or certain antidepressants may help reduce sleepwalking episodes.
Benzodiazepines are commonly prescribed to treat anxiety, but they’re also used to treat sleep disorders. Clonazepam (Klonopin) and diazepam (Valium) in particular are useful in reducing sleepwalking episodes.
Benzodiazepines and certain antidepressants may both help reduce an individual’s stress and anxiety — factors that increase the likelihood of sleepwalking.
Hypnosis is helpful for some sleepwalkers.
A hypnotherapist brings an individual into a very relaxed and focused state of mind. Then the hypnotherapist makes suggestions for changes tailored to the individual’s medical issue.
The belief is that these suggestions will sink into the individual’s consciousness in a deeper, more meaningful way because they’re more open to receiving the suggestions.
Sleepwalking occurs in approximately 15 percent of children. Other parasomnias associated with NREM sleep, like night terrors, are less common in children.
Sleepwalking peaks between 8 and 12 years old, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.
Certain factors seem to decrease the likelihood that a sleepwalking episode will occur.
These include lifestyle changes, like minimizing stress, anxiety, or conflict. Doing something that relaxes you before going to sleep, like reading a book, listening to music, or taking a warm bath, may help reduce your chances of a sleepwalking episode.
Severe exhaustion can also lead to sleepwalking.
Making every effort to get enough sleep at night can help. Consider making a sleep schedule a priority. Go to bed and wake at the same time.
Also, avoid drinking caffeine or alcohol before going to bed. Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant that can actually trigger sleepwalking.