Written by: Katy Foster
Updated March 16, 2021
Sleepwalking is a fairly common condition in which people walk or engage in other activities while sleeping (1). Also known as somnambulism, sleepwalking typically happens early in the night, during an N3 sleep stage (2). The N3 sleep phase is characterized by deep, non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep, which might account for a sleepwalker’s resistance to waking up.
Because the amount of time spent in N3 sleep declines with age, sleepwalking occurs more often in children and young adults. Although older adults can sleepwalk, they are less likely to become first-time sleepwalkers (3).
Sleepwalking tends to run in families, suggesting it has a genetic component. Other factors linked to sleepwalking include epilepsy, alcohol, caffeine, drugs and medications, and mental disorders. In older adults, sleepwalking is sometimes a sign of dementia or other neuro-cognitive disorders.
A sleepwalker will often appear to be awake, which can be confusing for anyone around them. Sleepwalkers may or may not remember their actions, and when they do wake up, they are often disoriented. Sleepwalking acts can be simple and harmless, such as getting out of bed, mumbling, or walking around. In more extreme cases, sleepwalkers can prepare meals, drive, or even engage in violent acts. Violence, however, rarely occurs in sleepwalking children.
People who witness sleepwalking don't always know how to react. Certain instances of sleepwalking require intervention, such as the rare cases in which a sleepwalker may harm themselves or others.
Is it Safe to Wake a Sleepwalker?
In many cases, it isn't necessary to rouse a sleepwalker, particularly if their behavior is mild. In fact, attempting to awaken a person sleepwalking can sometimes trigger agitation and violence (4). Often the best approach to helping a sleepwalker is to simply guide them back to bed.
Tips for Waking Up a Sleepwalker
Because abruptly waking a sleepwalker can trigger their fight-or-flight response, it’s best not to apply any physical force if you decide you should awaken them. Slapping, vigorously shaking, or raising your voice should be avoided, especially when it comes to young sleepwalkers (5).
Usually the best approach to waking a sleepwalker is to calmly encourage them to return to bed. If speaking to a sleepwalker doesn't wake them up, then you can try addressing the person in a louder tone and from a distance. This will often rouse them, and you’ll be at a safe enough reach from the sleepwalker should they inadvertently strike out.
What if You Can’t Wake Up Someone Who is Sleepwalking?
If guiding a sleepwalker back to bed or gently waking them aren’t options, then safeguarding against accidents is often the best plan of action.
Rearranging furniture, shutting windows, locking doors, removing potential obstacles, and hiding car keys at night are a few precautions that can prevent unintentional harm. Children with a tendency to sleepwalk, however, should not be locked inside their bedroom, since it presents a fire safety risk.
Persistent sleepwalkers might want to sleep on a mattress that rests directly on the floor or is very low to the ground (6). Sleeping in a first-floor bedroom can help prevent injuries related to stair use.
What Other Preventive Measures Can Be Taken?
Parents and spouses of sleepwalkers are often advised to keep a log of sleepwalking times to establish if there is a pattern. The loved one or caretaker can then wake the sleepwalker about 15 minutes before their usual sleepwalking time and keep them alert and awake for a few minutes. This method has been shown to prevent or minimize sleepwalking in both children and adults.
Sleepwalking can disturb those who experience it themselves and people who witness it in others. Sleepwalking is a relatively common disorder that rarely results in harm or injury. Taking preventative measures and knowing when and when not to wake a person who’s sleepwalking are usually the main steps required to manage this type of situation.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21483553/ Accessed on March 14, 2021.
- https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000808.htm Accessed on March 14, 2021.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27832078/ Accessed on March 14, 2021.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28787563/ Accessed on March 14, 2021.
- https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK559001/ Accessed on March 14, 2021.
- https://www.merckmanuals.com/home/brain,-spinal-cord,-and-nerve-disorders/sleep-disorders/parasomnias Accessed on March 14, 2021.