Why do people sleepwalk?

If you’ve ever been in a room with someone who’s sleepwalking, it can be a bit spooky. Often their eyes are wide open. They may be walking or speaking without making much sense. Or they may be doing other activities like moving furniture, dressing or undressing, opening windows or doors.

Only about 7% of the population regularly sleepwalks.

Sleepwalking occurs during the deep sleep phase of sleep. Usually, the person sleepwalking doesn’t remember what they said or did during this episode. It seems to be more common in children, though that could be because it’s their parents who are commonly reporting it. Unless someone else brings attention to it, most adults don’t recall their sleepwalking behaviour at all.

What causes people to sleepwalk?

There are many factors that may cause a person to sleepwalk.

  • Genetics plays a part. If you have a relative who sleepwalks, you’re more likely to have the behaviour.
  • Environmental factors like sleep deprivation, stress, fever, a chaotic sleep schedule, a high alcohol intake and magnesium deficiency, can contribute.
  • Physiological factors such as the length and depth of ‘slow wave’ sleep phases, odd heart rhythms, pregnancy, menstruation, asthma, sleep apnoea or seizures. All these things may cause someone to sleepwalk. Other psychiatric conditions like panic attacks, posttraumatic stress disorder or multiple personality disorder, are also associated with sleepwalking.

Is it bad to wake someone who is sleepwalking?

Discovering your child or partner is sleepwalking in the middle of the night can be disconcerting. Generally, it’s not a huge problem if you wake them up. It might be the best thing to do if you think they’re at risk of hurting themselves. You may find that the person is disoriented when woken. They may take a few minutes to work out where they are, so be gentle with them. Another approach might be to avoid waking them up by just turning them around and guiding them back to bed.

Is sleepwalking a problem?

Most medical and sleep experts consider sleepwalking to be a sleep disorder. But the real danger lies in the risk of a person tripping over or otherwise injuring themselves while they’re sleepwalking.

Sleepwalking can sometimes be associated with other sleep disorders. These include night terrors, which is a sudden and violent arousal from sleep, or nocturnal seizures. These conditions may result in a poor-quality sleep. And it’s this diminished sleep quality that has health implications for the sufferer. Stress and sleep deprivation are commonly associated with fatigue, as well as lack of concentration and an inability to learn. They also affect a person’s susceptibility to disease.

Can sleepwalking be cured?

If you or someone you know is worried about their sleepwalking, here are a few approaches to treat or cure their disorder:

The Natural Approach

  • Getting enough sleep and reducing stress through relaxation and mental imagery are techniques that should help. Seeking the advice of an experienced behavioural therapist or hypnotist could also be useful.
  • Anticipatory awakenings, where you wake the person up 15-20 minutes before their usual sleepwalking phase, is one option for long-term treatment of people with a sleepwalking disorder.
  • Avoid stimulation before bedtime, including electronic devices and TV.
  • Minimise the danger of sleepwalking to the person and to others by keeping the bedroom clear of obstacles and sharp objects.
  • Make sure they’re sleeping on the ground floor to avoid falling down stairs.
  • Locking windows and doors is also advisable.
  • Cover glass windows with heavy curtains.

Using medication to help with sleepwalking

It’s a good idea to visit the GP for advice. Short-term use of certain medications can help. Commonly prescribed medications include Estazolam, Clonazepam (Klonopin) and Trazodone (Oleptro).

Sleepwalking is not usually a serious sleeping disorder, but if it’s a problem, there are a few proven ways to tackle it!