What is sleepwalking?
Sleepwalking, formally known as somnambulism, is a behavior disorder that originates during deep sleep and results in walking or performing other complex behaviors while asleep. It is much more common in children than adults and is more likely to occur if a person is sleep deprived. Because a sleepwalker typically remains in deep sleep throughout the episode, he or she may be difficult to awaken and will probably not remember the sleepwalking incident.
How common is sleepwalking?
Sleepwalking is extremely common. It can affect patients at any age. It can be managed by reducing your risk factors. Please discuss with your doctor for further information.
What are the symptoms of sleepwalking?
Sleepwalking is most often initiated during deep sleep but may occur in the lighter sleep stages of NREM, usually within a few hours of falling asleep, and the sleepwalker may be partially aroused during the episode. Someone who is sleepwalking may:
- Get out of bed and walk around
- Sit up in bed and open his or her eyes
- Have a glazed, glassy-eyed expression
- Do routine activities, such as getting dressed, talking or making a snack
- Not respond or communicate with others
- Be difficult to wake up during an episode
- Be disoriented or confused for a short time after being awakened
- Quickly return to sleep
- Not remember the episode in the morning
- Sometimes have problems functioning during the day because of disturbed sleep
- Have sleep terrors in addition to sleepwalking
Rarely, a person who is sleepwalking will:
- Leave the house
- Drive a car
- Engage in unusual behavior, such as urinating in a closet
- Engage in sexual activity without awareness
- Get injured, for example, by falling down the stairs or jumping out a window
- Become violent during the confused period after awakening or, occasionally, during the event
In addition to walking during deep sleep, other symptoms of sleepwalking include:
- Little or no memory of the event
- Difficulty arousing the sleepwalker during an episode
- Inappropriate behavior such as urinating in closets (more common in children)
- Screaming (when sleepwalking occurs in conjunction with sleep terrors)
There may be some symptoms not listed above. If you have any concerns about a symptom, please consult your doctor.
When should I see my doctor?
You should contact your doctor if you have any of the following:
- Occur often — for example, more than one to two times a week
- Lead to dangerous behavior or injury to the person who sleepwalks (which may occur, for example, after leaving the house) or to others
- Cause significant sleep disruption to household members or embarrassment to the person who sleepwalks
- Start for the first time in an adult
- Continue into your child’s teen years
What causes sleepwalking?
Many factors can contribute to sleepwalking, including:
- Sleep deprivation
- Anxiety, such as separation anxiety in children
- Sleep schedule disruptions
- Some medications and substances, such as short-acting hypnotics, sedatives or combinations of different drugs prescribed for psychiatric illnesses, as well as alcohol
Sometimes sleepwalking can by triggered by underlying conditions that interfere with sleep, such as:
- Sleep-disordered breathing – a group of disorders characterized by abnormal breathing patterns during sleep (for example, obstructive sleep apnea)
- Restless legs syndrome
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
- Medical conditions such as hyperthyroidism, head injury or stroke
What increases my risk for sleepwalking?
There are many risk factors for sleepwalking, such as:
- Sleepwalking appears to run in families. It’s more common if you have one parent who has a history of sleepwalking, and much more common if both parents have a history of the disorder.
- Sleepwalking occurs more often in children than adults, and onset in adulthood is more likely related to other health conditions.
Diagnosis & Treatment
The information provided is not a substitute for any medical advice. ALWAYS consult with your doctor for more information.
How is sleepwalking diagnosed?
Unless you live alone and are completely unaware of your sleepwalking, chances are you’ll make the diagnosis of sleepwalking for yourself. If your child sleepwalks, you’ll know it.
Your doctor may do a physical or psychological exam to identify any conditions that may be confused with sleepwalking, such as nighttime seizures, other sleep disorders or panic attacks. In some cases, a sleep study in an overnight sleep lab may be recommended.
To participate in a sleep study, also known as a polysomnogram, you’ll likely spend the night in a sleep lab. A technologist places sensors on your scalp, temples, chest and legs using a mild adhesive, such as glue or tape. The sensors are connected by wires to a computer. A small clip is placed on your finger or ear to monitor the level of oxygen in your blood.
Polysomnography records your brain waves, the oxygen level in your blood, heart rate and breathing, as well as eye and leg movements during the study. Technologists monitor you throughout the night while you sleep.
Your doctor will review the information to determine whether you have any sleep disorders.
How is sleepwalking treated?
Treatment for occasional sleepwalking usually isn’t necessary. In children who sleepwalk, it typically goes away by the teen years.
If you notice your child or anyone else in your household sleepwalking, gently lead him or her back to bed. It’s not dangerous to the sleepwalker to be awakened, but it can be disruptive – the person may become confused and disoriented, and possibly agitated. Treatment may be needed if there are negative consequences for the sleepwalking, such as risk of injury or embarrassment, or if there’s distress for others.
Treatment may include:
- Treating the underlying condition, if the sleepwalking is associated with sleep deprivation or an underlying sleep disturbance, medical condition or a mental health disorder
- A change of medication, if it’s thought that the sleepwalking results from a drug
- Anticipatory awakenings – waking the sleepwalker about 15 minutes before the person usually sleepwalks, then staying awake for five minutes before falling asleep again
- Medication, such as benzodiazepines or certain antidepressants, if the sleepwalking leads to the potential for injury, is disruptive to family members, or results in embarrassment or sleep disruption for the person who sleepwalks
- Learning self-hypnosis
Lifestyle changes & Home remedies
What are some lifestyle changes or home remedies that can help me manage sleepwalking?
The following lifestyles and home remedies might help you cope with sleepwalking:
- Make the environment safe for sleepwalking. If sleepwalking has led to injuries or has the potential to do so, consider some of these precautions to prevent injury: Close and lock all windows and exterior doors at night. You might even lock interior doors or place alarms or bells on the doors. Block doorways or stairways with a gate, and move electrical cords or other objects that pose a tripping hazard. Sleep in a ground floor bedroom, if possible. Place any sharp or fragile objects out of reach, and lock up all weapons. If your child sleepwalks, don’t let him or her sleep in a bunk bed.
- Get more sleep. Fatigue can contribute to sleepwalking. If you’re sleep deprived, try an earlier bedtime, a more regular sleep schedule or a short nap, especially for toddlers.
- Establish a regular, relaxing routine before bedtime. Do quiet, calming activities before bed, such as reading books, doing puzzles or soaking in a warm bath. Meditation or relaxation exercises may help, too.
- Put stress in its place. Identify the issues that cause stress, and brainstorm possible ways to handle the stress. Talk about what’s bothering you. Or if your child seems anxious or stressed, talk with him or her about any concerns.
- Look for a pattern. For several nights, note ― or have another person in your home note ― how many minutes after bedtime a sleepwalking episode occurs. If the timing is fairly consistent, this information is useful in planning anticipatory awakenings.
Try to be positive. However disruptive, sleepwalking usually isn’t a serious condition — and it usually goes away on its own.
If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor to better understand the best solution for you.
Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.
Sleep Disorders: Sleepwalking Basics. http://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/guide/sleepwalking-causes. Accessed 26 Feb 2017.
Sleepwalking. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/sleepwalking/basics/definition/con-20031795. Accessed 26 Feb 2017.
Review Date: March 14, 2017 | Last Modified: March 14, 2017