Written by: Reneé Prince
Updated March 4, 2021
Sleepwalking affects as many as 17% of children (1) and 2% to 4% of adults. The tendency to sleepwalk can run in families (2), and may occur with night terrors or other sleep disorders. Unlike dreams and nightmares, sleepwalking tends to occur during the first deep sleep of the night, about an hour or two after going to bed.
During a sleepwalking episode (3), a person might go to the bathroom, walk down the stairs, or do other complex activities while asleep. Episodes usually last about 10 minutes (4), after which the person will usually fall back asleep (5) and wake up the next morning with no memory of having sleepwalked.
Sleepwalking can be frightening for those who witness it. If you live with someone who sleepwalks, you may wonder what happens if you wake up a sleepwalker, and what's the best way to keep them safe.
Is Sleepwalking Dangerous?
Sleepwalking is not dangerous (6) in and of itself. Walking while asleep is not considered to be a sign of any serious underlying psychological problems (7), though many sleepwalkers do suffer from daytime sleepiness (8).
However, the sleepwalker runs the risk of engaging in behavior that may be harmful to themselves or to others around them, such as tripping and falling or trying to cook while asleep. On rare occasions, sleepwalkers may even try to drive a vehicle or attack their bed partner (9).
What Happens If You Wake up a Sleepwalker?
Waking up a person who is sleepwalking can be very difficult. Sleepwalking is a type of parasomnia, a term used to describe behaviors performed when an individual is neither fully asleep nor awake. Research on brain waves have shown that different parts of the brain can be at different states of arousal (10) during sleep. Thus, a sleepwalker is able to carry out certain actions, but they do not have a conscious understanding of what they are doing.
If you do manage to wake a sleepwalker in the act, they may be disoriented, confused, or scared. Those who wake up in the middle of performing an inappropriate behavior, such as taking off their clothes in the middle of the street, may feel embarrassed. Sleepwalkers who are very startled may lash out violently (11), especially if it takes them a few seconds to recognize you and understand where they are and what is happening.
Can Waking up a Sleepwalker Be Dangerous?
There is a myth that waking up a sleepwalker could give them a heart attack or brain damage. Although the shock of waking up in a different place and not knowing how they got there might feel frightening, there is no evidence to suggest that waking up a sleepwalker could be dangerous to their health.
Should You Wake up a Sleepwalker?
If a sleepwalker doesn't pose any danger to themselves or to others, you don't need to wake them up. In fact, waking them might do more harm than good, since you might scare them. Instead, keep the sleepwalker out of harm's reach by soothing them in a calm, quiet voice and gently leading them back to bed, trying to keep physical contact to a minimum.
In certain situations, you may worry that the sleepwalker is going to hurt themselves or the people around them. In these cases, waking them up could be the better option.
How Do I Safely Wake up a Sleepwalker?
The best way to wake up a sleepwalker is to speak loudly or call out their name. Avoid any actions that might frighten them, such as shaking them or grabbing them. Try to stay out of arm's reach in case they react aggressively to a perceived attack. Once they're awake, explain that they've been sleepwalking.
If you're unable to wake them up, keep monitoring them and try again later if necessary.
How Can I Help Without Waking up a Sleepwalker?
One easy way to reduce potential risks of sleepwalking is to create a safe sleeping environment. You can help protect your sleepwalking loved one by:
- Securing doors and windows, without blocking fire escape routes
- Removing sharp or otherwise dangerous objects from the bedroom
- Clearing tripping hazards, such as loose cords and clutter
- Putting a safety gate at the top of the stairs
- Never letting sleepwalkers sleep in the top bunk
- Hiding car keys
For people who are genetically predisposed to sleepwalking, episodes often occur due to restless sleep (12). Sleepers with a genetic predisposition to sleepwalking may be able to cut down on sleepwalking by addressing sources of stress, following a calming bedtime routine, and adopting healthier sleep hygiene habits.
Sleepwalking is usually harmless, but if your loved one sleepwalks on a regular basis or if it's becoming a problem, talk to your doctor. They may be able to suggest additional remedies, such as scheduled awakening, to prevent sleepwalking episodes before they happen.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30458142/ Accessed on February 22, 2021.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23415568/ Accessed on February 22, 2021.
- https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000808.htm Accessed on February 22, 2021.
- https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/sleepwalking/ Accessed on February 22, 2021.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24695508/ Accessed on February 22, 2021.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23450499/ Accessed on February 22, 2021.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15229043/ Accessed on February 22, 2021.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29959394/ Accessed on February 22, 2021.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16331395/Accessed on February 24, 2021.
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- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28787563/ Accessed on February 22, 2021.
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