Sleepwalking, also known as Somnambulism, is a strange but surprisingly common sleep disorder.
It mainly occurs in childhood, with 20 – 40% of children experiencing it occasionally and 3 – 4% experiencing it often.
While most people grow out of it by the time they reach their teenage years, for some it can continue into adulthood.
This article covers the activities, effects, causes and treatments for sleepwalking.
Sleepwalking episodes occur early in the night, within around 2 hours of first falling asleep. They can last anywhere from 3 minutes to half an hour plus. They generally only happen only once a night.
Despite the cartoon image, sleepwalkers have their eyes open while they walk around so they can see where they’re going, often with a glazed or empty look on their faces. Not with their eyes closed and arms stretched out.
Unless they wake up in the middle of what they’re doing, sleepwalkers often have no memory of their activities. The only way they can find out is if they’re told, find themselves sleeping in a different place or find objects moved around the house.
Sleepwalking activities can include anything from just sitting up in bed to carrying out complicated daily activities. These can include:
- Making drinks
- Cooking and using kitchen appliances
- Drawing pictures
- Urinating in inappropriate places such as plant pots or cupboards
- Sexual acts, with people they either know or don’t
- Eating food from the fridge
- Wandering outside the house, sometimes naked
The list is endless. Essentially if you can do it while you’re awake, you can do it while you’re sleepwalking. See this webpage for a list of 10 of the most unbelievable sleepwalking activities.
Some people have even been found not guilty of murder on the grounds they were sleepwalking at the time of the act and so had no idea what they were doing. While this has found to be true in some cases, it’s become one of the more bizarre explanations for the defence to use in court.
A sleepwalker’s mood can be anywhere from calm, slowly walking around the house in a dazed and confused way, to very agitated, running around, crying and screaming as if trying to escape from something.
Effects of Sleepwalking
Since sleepwalkers are in fact asleep while they carry out their activities, they’re at a strong risk of hurting themselves. Simple daily tasks such as walking up and down the stairs, lighting a stove or using a knife to cut vegetables on a chopping board can pose a serious danger for a sleepwalker.
Normal, healthy people who eat while they sleepwalk have been known to become overweight and develop eating disorders, just from the food they eat while they’re sleeping.
Sleepwalking can also affect you physiologically. It can be embarrassing and emotionally upsetting to suffer from sleepwalking, especially if it happens away from home. You might also feel guilt after an unintended act performed while sleepwalking.
Causes of Sleepwalking
Sleepwalking is caused by a partial arousal, without actually waking up. So you’re basically asleep and awake at the same time. It occurs when you’re in deep sleep so your activities aren’t likely to wake you up.
Sleepwalking’s quite common in children but they usually grow out of it when they reach their teenage years. Although it can in rare cases continue to adulthood.
Sleepwalking’s often inherited. If you sleepwalk, it’s probable that some other members of your family did, or are doing so too.
Episodes can be triggered more easily when you experience a loss of sleep. This can be down to:
- Certain medication
- Sleep Apnea
- Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome
- Sleeping in a different environment
How to Treat and help Prevent Sleepwalking
While no treatment exists to completely eradicate sleepwalking, there are plenty of things you can do to either prevent it or reduce its effects.
Educating yourself about the issue can help ease tensions and put right any misconceptions you may have about sleepwalking.
For example, just knowing that it is common and that you will more than likely grow out of it in a few years can be a huge comfort.
Sleepwalking is in fact pretty normal in children. Usually there’s nothing psychological causing it, but it’s best to get it checked out if you’re feeling concerned.
Parents should know that there’s little point in telling sleepwalkers what they were doing while sleepwalking unless they’re specifically interested. As mentioned above, sleepwalking can be a thing of embarrassment for many people so telling them about it may make them feel bad about themselves.
Sleepwalking can be prevented if you’re woken up just before a sleepwalking episode is due to occur.
The timing of sleepwalking episodes are actually quite regular. They often happen around 2 hours into sleep, just as you enter into NREM stage 3 (deep sleep).
Waking up 15 to 30 minutes before a predicted sleepwalking episode helps break the cycle, preventing it from happening. This can be especially useful when you particularly don’t what a sleepwalking episode to occur, if you’re sleeping over at someone’s house for example.
Hypnosis can help cure sleepwalking in two ways.
If you know what is the mental trigger to your sleepwalking, hypnosis can be used to reprogram your brain’s response so it doesn’t react to it by sleepwalking. It removes the association between the event and the reaction.
Another way is to program your mind to wake you up as soon as you start sleepwalking. So for example, triggering your brain to wake you up as soon as your feet touch the floor when you get out of bed.
Personal hypnosis consultations can be expensive, but many people have found that self hypnosis sessions from the Internet have really helped with their sleepwalking. If you’re open to this method of treatment, take a look at Overcome Sleep Walking from experienced hypnotist Barrie St John. It’s inexpensive and comes with a 90 money back guarantee (at the time of writing) so you can try it out with no financial risk.
Help them back to bed
While it may be tempting to try, waking up a sleepwalker can be a hard task since they’re in a very deep sleep. Even if you do manage it, they’ll probably be confused and frightened to find themselves outside of their bedroom in the middle of the night.
So the very best thing you can do is help guide them back to bed. If they seem determined to stay up, ask them what their intentions are and see if you can help or reason with them. They may be slow to respond and may not make sense, so you have to be patient with them.
Make the house safe
It goes without saying, accidents are far more likely if you’re not fully awake. While sleepwalkers may appear to be reasonably alert, they carry out their activities in a very clumsy and confused way, so they’re at high risk of injuring themselves.
Essentially, you should make the house as safe as possible. This can be done by:
- Locking the doors and windows throughout your home
- Not letting a sleepwalker sleep in a bunk bed
- Storing away sharp and breakable objects
- Removing any obstacles they could trip over
Sleepwalkers have been known to fall out 1st floor windows in extreme cases, so you never can be too careful!
Encourage good quality sleep
Probably the best preventive to sleepwalking is good quality sleep.
Your sleepwalking may be as simple as not getting enough sleep in the first place. See the Sleep by Age article to find out how many hours sleep each age group needs per night.
Make sure you don’t drink too much water before going to bed and also make sure you don’t drink alcohol before you go to bed. Both of these can cause you to wake up in the night, which could trigger a sleepwalking episode.
It’s important to follow good sleep hygiene principles. Make sure the bedroom is only used as a place for sleep, build up a steady sleep pattern and leave stress out of the bedroom. See the articles in the How to Sleep Better section for more on these.