Sleepwalking is an elusive occurrence that often leaves partners and family members entirely unaware a household member is walking the halls at night. Scientists still aren't certain what causes the condition; many times, it's hereditary, but sometimes the cause escapes reason. We’ve consulted a few experts on sleep behavior to shed some light on and better understand this phenomenon.
Below we discuss what happens in our brains when we sleepwalk, the conditions needed to spark an episode, who is at risk for sleepwalking, and whether or not it's dangerous. Sleepwalking may be a mystery, but we're here to crack the code.
Sleepwalking, otherwise known as parasomnia, is described as unusual behavior during sleep. The word parasomnia comes from the Greek word ‘para', meaning alongside, and the Latin word ‘somnus', meaning sleep.
The condition can appear for various reasons, including sleep deprivation, sleep disorders, stress and anxiety, medications, or genetics. After discussing sleepwalking with Dr. Peter Bailey, MD, it seems that when symptoms arise sporadically, the issue tends to result from fever, alcohol or drug use, or a new sleep routine. Still, these triggers can cause chronic symptoms as well.
According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, our sleep is divided mainly into REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep and non-REM (NREM or Non-Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. REM sleep occurs when your eyes are experiencing rapid movement while you're asleep. This is also when most of our vivid dreams arise because our brain activity in this phase is most similar to when we’re awake.
However, this is not when we're known to sleepwalk. Sleepwalking typically occurs when we're in the non-REM phase.
Think about it like this: in the REM phase, when we dream, our eyes are moving rapidly; and when we're awake, our eyes are also moving frequently, helping us interact with the world.
Our deepest rest— and sleepwalking— occurs when we're not in the REM phase but the NREM phase, precisely, stage 3 of the NREM phase, also referred to as delta sleep. This phase is when our muscles are more relaxed, and our breathing is more subdued.
Learn More: The 4 Stages of Sleep
The terms parasomnia and somnambulism could be easily confused, which is understandable because the words are related. Parasomnia is an umbrella term for certain sleep disorders that create undesirable events or experiences.
According to our conversation with Dr. Bailey, severe cases could involve a person getting out of bed, putting on clothes, and leaving the house while entirely unaware of what they're doing. In some instances, sleepwalkers like Celina Myers of TikTok fame, have gotten out of bed in minimal clothing, no shoes, and gone outside in sub-freezing temperatures. Episodes like this could cause severe consequences like hypothermia, illness, or injury.
Extreme circumstances like the latter could pose serious risks if someone walks into oncoming traffic, comes across a dangerous individual, or merely encounters an innocent bystander who doesn't understand the disorder.
Sleepwalking is more often seen in children than adults, with many children growing out of the disorder as they age into adulthood. Knowing with certainty how often episodes happen can be challenging because somnambulism largely occurs at night.
According to a survey by the Children's Hospital of Orange County, about 2 percent of school-aged children sleepwalk a few nights a week. However, The Royal Children's Hospital of Melbourne reports that as much as one-third of children sleepwalk at some stage in their lives, so while the data demonstrates an issue, the numbers vary.
In mild cases, parents often never realize their child sleepwalks at all. The child could merely sit up in bed or walk around their room for a few minutes before lying back down, with no one ever being the wiser.
Adult precursors to sleepwalking include sleep deprivation, stress, anxiety, certain medications, fever, various sleep disorders, or excessive alcohol or drug use. Further, the condition could be hereditary; sleepwalkers are 80% more likely to sleepwalk if their family has a history of somnambulism.
According to Dr. Bailey, when the issue arises sporadically, it's often in response to illness, a new sleep routine, or drug or alcohol use.
Sleepwalking typically happens during the third stage of the REM phase, which is when we're in deep sleep, so most people don't remember their episodes. Someone can hop out of bed, walk to a deli, eat a sandwich, and go right back to bed without ever having a memory of the event.
On the other hand, there have been instances where people have remembered the incident, which is likely due to neuropsychological reasons. Children and adolescents rarely remember the events, whereas a higher proportion of adults have vague memories of what they did during their episodes, with some even remembering their thoughts and emotions at the time.
Waking someone from sleepwalking could be dangerous; however, according to Dr. Bailey, sleepwalkers are generally persuadable. Many individuals don't need to be woken up and can often be gently guided back to bed.
However, some instances could be life-threatening. Laura Bates, Certified Sleep Coach, explained to us that, “a somnambulist may decide to use a knife or electrical chords, for example, which can be dangerous.” Further, individuals who put on clothes (or don't) and leave the house when it's snowing outside are clearly putting themselves in danger. In this case, it's wise to wake them safely— because the alternative could be more harmful, just prepare to protect yourself.
About 75 percent of childhood sleepwalkers will age out of the condition before they reach adulthood, and typically the issue will resolve after puberty. Only about 25 percent of cases persist into adulthood; this could be attributed to the older you get, the less deep sleep you need. Because sleepwalking occurs during these deep sleep stages, there is less opportunity for it to happen.
Some scientists believe that sleepwalking happens due to the brain attempting to “jump” from deep NREM sleep to wakefulness, as opposed to going through full cycles.
As we age, total sleep time decreases, and the transition from deep rest to consciousness is typically more abrupt, leading older folks to assume they are lighter sleepers than when they were in their youth. Additionally, because the total time of sleep has shrunk, older people spend less time in dreamless, deep sleep, which is when we sleepwalk.
Learn More: Parents Guide to a Childs Sleep
Sleepwalking is a sleep disorder also referred to as somnambulism, which is a specific type of parasomnia. Parasomnia can refer to various issues like sleep talking, sleep paralysis, sleep hallucination, SERD (sleep-related eating disorder), and more.
SERD (sleep-related eating disorder) is when someone compulsively binge eats and drinks repeatedly in their sleep. This typically occurs when someone is only partially awake and always in an “out-of-control” manner. Someone may carelessly eat food or not cook foods properly, sometimes leading to harmful behavior due to improper use of a stove or oven.
Upon noticing yourself or someone else experiencing sleepwalking episodes that could be dangerous, we strongly encourage you to consult a medical professional and seek help.
Sleepwalkers can do any number of activities while they're unconscious; a person could leave their home, walk somewhere foreign, or even go back to sleep (and then wake up) in unfamiliar surroundings. Experiencing extreme episodes like this could potentially be life-threatening. Further, they can be especially traumatic for the individual affected.
If you or someone you know has woken up in a place, situation or home (particularly with a stranger) with no recollection of how they arrived, they may have somnambulism. While the condition is an explanation, it doesn't negate strange circumstances, and all occurrences should be taken seriously.
Sleepwalkers could put others at risk due to their behavior, depending on what objects they gravitate towards. For example, we learned in our conversation with Certified Sleep Coach Laura Bates, Founder & CEO of Comfybeddy.com.au, “a somnambulist may decide to use a knife or electrical chords, which can be dangerous.”
Somnambulists can often be aggressive when woken due to feelings of confusion. Waking a sleepwalker is typically safe if the case is mild. However, the person waking a sleepwalker could become the victim of accidental aggression due to them being roused from a deep sleep.
Repeated episodes of sleepwalking don't necessarily mean any underlying health issues. Somnambulism isn't uncommon in children and often isn't dangerous as long as they're in a safe space. In our conversation with Katherine Hall, a Sleep Psychologist and sleep coach at Somnus Sleep, we learned that studies suggest about 20 percent of children will sleepwalk at least once in their youth.
Experiencing excessive sleepiness during the daytime can be a symptom of sleepwalking. Many somnambulists don't realize they have a disorder for prolonged periods, merely because the episodes may be mild in nature and don't cause any harm or major disruptions.
However, if the instances occur frequently, they can take a toll on a person's sleep health and detract from needed rest. If these instances happen repeatedly, a person may experience daytime drowsiness as a result. Daytime sleepiness can be a telling symptom in a person who experiences somnambulism and could require professional attention.
Somnambulism, or sleepwalking, is often a mysterious affliction, with many individuals not realizing they suffer from the disorder. Sleepwalking could result in a variety of unusual behavior like night eating, leaving the house without proper clothing, disrupted sleep, and other situations with little or no memory.
If you or someone you know might be sleepwalking, be sure it's mild or harmless in nature. Some instances may not be cause for concern, however, the issue can quickly become a severe problem if the person involved or those around them wind up in harm's way. Keep an eye out for these behaviors, and we encourage anyone exhibiting symptoms to seek medical attention.