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Why Do People Sleep Walk?

Jonathan Warren

29.11.2019

Advice

Jonathan Warren

Most of us have had a sleepwalking or sleeptalking experience at some point in our lives without it causing a major concern. But if it occurs with regularity, it can cause significant disruptions to your sleep.  

In this guide, we’ll explore exactly what sleepwalking is, what triggers it in adults and children, and what you can do to reduce the chances of it happening.  

Why do people sleepwalk? 

Despite how widespread the phenomenon of sleepwalking is, the cause of it is not known. Most cases of sleepwalking occur during a period of deep sleep that kicks in during the first few hours of sleep. Aside from movement, either within the bed or out of it, common signs and symptoms of sleepwalking behaviour extend to: 

  • Sleeptalking 
  • Screaming or shouting 
  • Urinating away from the toilet (particularly prevalent with children)  
  • Lashing out at people if they attempt to wake up the sleepwalker  
  • Almost always, the sleepwalker or talker will have no recollection of the event.  

The chances of any individual experiencing sleepwalking are increased if parents have also been prone to it, or similar sleeping behaviours like night terrors, in the past. Despite no absolute known cause, there are a number of things that are known to trigger or make it more likely: 

  • Lack of regular sleep 
  • Consumption of alcohol 
  • Other sedatives in medicine  
  • Consumption of recreational drugs 
  • Stress  
  • Anxiety   
  • A fever  

Aside from the above conditions, some other sleep disorders may increase the chance of sleepwalking or other sleep behaviours.  

Sleep apnea 

A condition that sees your breathing regularly stop and start whilst sleeping. Other symptoms include loud snoring, gasping during the night and waking up at regular intervals.    

Restless leg syndrome 

An overwhelming urge to move your legs when sat down or laid down, often occurring in the evening.  

Why do children sleepwalk? 

Sleepwalking occurs in a large proportion of the population, but regular occurrences tend to start in childhood. The National Sleep Foundation has shown how the prevalence of sleepwalking reduces as you get older. Among adults, just 2% to 3% experience sleepwalking more than once a month. Among children, it is as high as 40%. They also experience other sleep disorders such as night terrors and confusion arousal more often than adults.  

As with sleepwalking in general, there is no explanation has to what causes the phenomenon in children.  

What to do if you see someone sleepwalking? 

Sleepwalkers can be unpredictable, so you must proceed with care if you plan to try and wake a sleepwalker. If their activity is limited to the bed, it may be best to leave them to wake naturally – especially if in the past waking them has startled them or resulted in a violent response. Most sleepwalking experiences only last around 10 minutes so you can often ride it out to a conclusion.  

Ultimately, you need to consider the safety of yourself and the sleepwalker. Can you usher them calmly back into bed, blocking off exits from their bedroom and keeping them away from staircases or the front door? In extreme cases, sleepwalkers have been known to try complex tasks such as driving. Your objective should simply be to ensure the safety of the sleepwalker and any others in the area.  

Once you’ve done that, you could attempt to wake them up – but only do so as gently as possible. If you shake too hard or shout, you could scare the sleepwalker into lashing out at you. If they are sleeptalking, you could attempt to talk back to them. You may elicit a response, although it is often hard to understand.  

Do animals sleepwalk? 

Sleepwalking as we know it is a phenomenon that is exclusive to humans. That’s not to say that common household pets don’t display their own strange activity when they’re asleep. Dogs and cats are known to jerk and twitch their legs, as well as make a range of sounds. Experts say this is the animals acting out their dreams.  

There’s no need to wake a dog or cat if you see this – in fact, they are probably enjoying their dream chasing a cat or mouse! 

How to limit sleepwalking 

As we’ve mentioned above, there is no absolute cure to regular sleepwalking, but there are many changes you can make in order to reduce its regularity. Try these and see if anything changes:  

Stick to a bedtime routine  

Sleepwalking is often caused by a general lack of sleep. It stands to reason then that getting more sleep could see your sleepwalking episodes disappear. Put more time aside each night for your trip to the land of nod. Make sure that things like smartphones and TVs are switched off well before bed, helping you to drift off without a problem. 

This extends to children having difficulties with sleepwalking. Create a routine bedtime and stick to it. To avoid any late-night interruptions to sleep, make sure trips to the loo are undertaken before bedtime.  

Create a relaxing environment   

On top of switching off TVs, laptops and other electronics that can keep us awake at night, you should take as many steps as possible to creating a relaxing environment in the bedroom and in your routine. 

Try to reduce stress and anxiety by leaving your pile of emails and unfinished work in the office – the distraction will only cause more stress. Take a bath to unwind before heading to bed. Once you get there, read a book to clear your mind, and make sure your bedroom is quiet and dark when it’s time to get some kip.  

Try to avoid drinks    

Another common barrier to a good night’s sleep, and therefore potentially giving rise to sleepwalking, is drinking. Alcohol and caffeine are two you should absolutely avoid before bed. While alcohol will disrupt your sleep, caffeine will ensure you’re not able to get to sleep in the first place.  

Eating is another activity worth avoiding. Not only does it keep your brain active and boost your energy supplies, it can also give rise to restless sleep via indigestion or sweating in the night. Some even consider food to be linked to another common sleep disorder, night terrors, although the evidence suggests food does not directly cause them.  

Seek medical help if required  

It's not thought that sleepwalking is linked to any underlying psychological problems, and the occasional occurrence is not a cause for alarm (particularly in children who are likely to grow out of it). Still, if you consider the sleepwalker to be endangering themselves or you, or episodes are regular in adulthood, you might want to reach out for expert help.  

A doctor could refer you to a sleep specialist to try and identify the root of the problem. They could even prescribe a bout of hypnotherapy – something which has proven successful for some. Before you consider any medical remedies for sleepwalking, be sure to consult a doctor.  

Sleepwalking is a strange phenomenon – so much so that we don’t fully understand how it works. If you or your child are regularly struggling with sleepwalking incidents, try to ensure you’re doing everything you can to get a good night’s sleep. It may be as easy as swapping up your nightly routine.  

About the author

Jonathan Warren

Jonathan Warren

Time4Sleep owner