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Sleep walking is not as uncommon as you might think. Here, we look into the whys and what-fors behind sleep walking plus what to do if you catch a loved one in the act.
*sleepwalking*: possible causes and how to stop it

Sleepwalking is pretty funny, right? Films and TV certainly depict it as something to giggle at. A zombified sleepwalker, arms outstretched, perhaps drooling a bit, while they take a gentle stroll around the bedroom is fairly amusing when you see it on screen. But in real life? Sleepwalking can be pretty disturbing, both for the nocturnal wanderer and for their family too. 

Sometimes known as somnambulism, sleepwalking affects around 7% of the population (1), though it may happen to some of those people just once or twice in their lifetime. Most commonly affected are children aged between four and eight, with adults making up only around 1 to 1.5% of sleepwalking statistics (2). 

If you, your sleeping partner or your child sleepwalks you’re probably pretty keen to know why it happens, what you can do to minimise midnight rambling and just what the risks are to those who take a hike overnight. We’ve done the research so you don’t have to. 

what is sleepwalking? 

Sleepwalking is what’s known in the business as a parasomnia, a term that refers to abnormal sleep behaviours. Those who experience parasomnias aren’t, strictly speaking, asleep. Instead, sleepwalking appears to occur in a state somewhere between peaceful sleep and the wide awake club. Occurring in the first few hours after you drop off, during the non-REM, or NREM, period of sleep, experts categorise sleepwalking as an NREM arousal disorder along with sleep talking and night terrors. 

what happens when you sleepwalk? 

Sleepwalking doesn’t always involve simply wandering around during sleep. People who sleepwalk might engage in a whole host of weird and wonderful behaviours. Some sleepwalkers might get up and get dressed, some people have even been found cooking or driving their car as if off to work for the day. It’s relatively common for sleepwalkers to take a leak in entirely the wrong place. Some sleepwalkers may even experience sexsomnia. Which is exactly what it sounds like.  

Indeed, the internet is positively awash with stories of wacky sleepwalking behaviours. Out there on the worldwide web you’ll find tales aplenty of sleepwalkers running naked down hotel corridors, vacuuming their living rooms and playing imaginary card games with Mr. Nobody. Dads grabbing their guns while fast asleep, students standing stock still and staring over their roommates and teenagers doing out of character things like washing their bedclothes (3). 

how do I know if I’m a sleepwalker? 

One of the main characteristics of an NREM parasomnia like sleepwalking, and one of the most worrying for that matter, is that those who experience them aren’t able to recall it afterwards. This means that many people are completely unaware of their sleepy behaviours until they’re told about or until they find themselves waking up somewhere other than their bed, certain they tucked in tight earlier that evening. 

In most cases, a GP or other healthcare expert will diagnose sleepwalking based on what you tell them. After all, your boyfriend finding you glassy-eyed cleaning the bathroom or your mum coming across you taking a turn around the garden in your undies at 2am is a pretty clear indication that something’s not quite right. Although sleepwalking is hard to capture during a sleep study your healthcare provider may only suggest further testing if they think an underlying medical issue is causing your parasomnia. 

sleepwalking in kids: will they grow out of it? 

The vast majority of sleepwalkers are of prepubescent age, which we know has got to be pretty scary, both for the sleepwalker and, perhaps even more so, for their parents. According to the NHS, around one in five children will sleepwalk at least once (4). However, they also tell us, reassuringly that most children will grow out of parasomnias by the time they reach puberty (just in time for a whole host of new things for mum and dad to worry about to start cropping up). This is backed up by the fact that sleepwalking in children is far more common than it is in teens and adults. 

sleepwalking: the risks 

Sleepwalking in adults, and in kids too, comes with a variety of risks. After all, those who sleepwalk are completely unaware that they’re doing so, which means that they can’t protect themselves from injury as they wander. This is underlined by the many horror stories out there of sleepwalkers found on roofs, near cliffs and in the road. In addition, sleepwalkers will often carry out activities that are perfectly safe when they’re awake but that aren’t advisable when we’re unconscious. For example, cooking and cleaning, driving cars or riding bikes or simply walking down stairs. Many of these activities don’t just put the sleepwalker themselves at risk of injury but can cause harm to those around them too. 

So how do you keep yourself and your family safe if you or someone else is your home is prone to sleepwalking? 

  • Secure doors and windows to keep the sleepwalker contained in their bedroom 
  • Remove breakable items like mirrors and lamps from their immediate vicinity 
  • Put a child gate over the stairs to minimise the risk of tumbles 
  • Keep dangerous items like knives or tools (and the car keys!) locked away at night 
  • Remove trip hazards such as rugs, power cords and low level furniture 
  • Invest in motion sensors or, for a low tech alternative, attach bells to doors and windows 
  • Avoid bunk beds and loft beds 

should I wake a sleepwalker? 

When someone you love is on the move at night you may be tempted to do what you can to snap them out of it. After all, they’re putting themselves at risk of harm and that thousand mile stare is no doubt freaking you the hell out. However, doctors advise against trying to rouse a sleepwalker by shouting, shaking them or making loud noises, because there’s a risk, though very small, of a violent reaction from a startled sleepwalker. Instead, experts think it’s best to simply stay close and do what you can to keep the sleepwalker safe – steer them away from those stairs, remove the toilet bleach from their reach, take the big knife away. Wherever possible you should guide your charge back to bed while speaking quietly and reassuringly to them. With a bit of luck they’ll settle down and you can both enjoy stress-free slumber for the rest of the night. 

why am I sleepwalking? 

Sleepwalking is, at best, an amusing annoyance. At its worst it can cause real problems. Not only are sleepwalkers losing out on necessary restful sleep, they’re also at very high risk of injury when they’re up and about too. In addition, sleepwalking can be stressful for everyone in a home, resulting in anxiety, tiredness and strained relationships. To help you better cope with sleepwalking it’s a good idea to understand the possible triggers. Knowing what causes sleepwalking episodes might help you to feel less anxious about them and could even help to reduce the risk of recurrence. 

what causes sleepwalking? common triggers 

If there’s one little sliver of hope we can give to you nighttime hikers it’s that the most common causes of sleepwalking aren’t serious and can be addressed with relatively simple lifestyle changes. Perhaps the most common trigger? Stress and anxiety. We know it’s all too easy to say but reducing stressors in your life may help you to not only sleep better each night (and sleep deprivation is also linked to sleepwalking) and, in turn, reduce or even eliminate those pesky sleepwalking episodes altogether. Reducing stress may include limiting your workload by delegating tasks at work or speaking to your boss about a change in responsibilities. It could mean asking your partner, friends or family to step up and help with childcare and household tasks. It may also help to explore the idea of talking therapies or medication with your GP. 

Drinking alcohol and taking drugs are also linked to attacks of parasomnia such as sleepwalking. We all know how a tipple or two can make us feel like we’re sleeping like the dead, however, alcohol can  play absolute havoc with those all-important sleep stages. In fact, you’re probably waking up far more frequently than you realise after a night on the sauce. And when it comes to drugs, it’s not just the naughty ones that’ll kickstart sleepwalking. Certain prescription medications, particularly those with a sedative effect, can induce the kind of sleep that will result in sleepwalking or similar behaviours. If you think your daily medication is the cause of sleepwalking it’s a good idea to chat with your doctor about alternatives. 

There are, of course, those things over which you have no control too. Genetics is thought to play a part in sleepwalking, with a huge 61% sleepwalking prevalence in the children of two sleepwalkers (5). A fever can kickstart a sleepwalking episode too, underlining how vital it is to get those high temperatures under control in case of illness. In addition, both Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS) and Obstructive Sleep Apnoea (OSA) are linked to sleepwalking and other parasomnia-type behaviours. If you experience either of these it’s advisable to speak to your GP.  

how to stop sleepwalking 

In addition to treating the underlying causes of sleepwalking what can you do to reduce occurrences of sleepwalking? Some medications do seem to work, however it’s rare that your doctor will suggest this. Instead Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) incorporating relaxation techniques may be recommended, especially if sleepwalking episodes are triggered by stress. 

Anticipated awakening may help to reduce sleepwalking episodes too, especially in children. Because sleepwalking tends to happen at the same time, it is possible to rouse the sleepwalker just before they reach the stage of sleep during which they’re likely to sleepwalk. By doing this you may help the sleepwalker to skip the partial awakening that leads to their usual nocturnal activities. 

A great night’s sleep is important for everyone, yet so few of us seem to really get there. Improved sleep hygiene is the most common recommendation made to those who experience sleepwalking. Not only does good sleep hygiene minimise the sleep deprivation that can lead to parasomnias, it also includes addressing triggers such as alcohol and caffeine, which also feed into the sleepwalking issue. To ensure the best possible sleep hygiene it’s vital to have a regular sleep schedule, which means getting up and going to bed at around the same time each day. It’s also advisable to enjoy a good bedtime routine, including removing devices from the mix. You should also prepare your bedroom for sleep, ensuring that it’s dark and quiet enough and free from distractions like clutter or charging lights. 

Finally, choosing a mattress that guarantees a restful night’s sleep is an absolute must, and that’s where we at eve HQ can help.