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Sleepwalking (somnambulism)

3-minute read

What is sleepwalking?

Sleepwalking is a type of sleep disorder that involves you doing things in your sleep you are not aware of at the time, and that you usually can't remember when you wake up. Treatment isn't usually needed, but there are things you can do to lower the chance of sleepwalking.

Sleepwalking tends to occur early in the night.

Children between 4 and 12 are most likely to sleepwalk and then grow out of it. However, some people continue to sleepwalk in adolescence and adulthood. Occasionally, sleepwalking starts in adulthood.

What happens when you sleepwalk?

Some people simply walk around then go back to bed. But some also talk, shout, eat, or even move furniture or drive a car.

A sleepwalking episode usually lasts for only a few minutes, although it can be longer. Some people sleepwalk only rarely, while others do it a lot. Some may sleepwalk many times in one night.

Sleepwalking itself is not harmful, but sleepwalkers might do something that could cause injury such as climbing out of a window or walking into objects. If you sleepwalk, there is a chance you might harm either yourself or the people around you.

Sleepwalking can also interfere with the quality of sleep both of you and those you live with.

What causes sleepwalking?

What causes sleepwalking isn't exactly clear, although there are some things that are known. Genetics plays a role — you are much more likely to be a sleepwalker if your parents sleepwalked.

You are also more likely to sleepwalk if you:

  • get too little sleep
  • have irregular sleeping hours
  • feel stress or anxiety
  • are ill or have a fever
  • take certain drugs and medicines
  • use or abuse alcohol
  • have certain medical conditions, such as sleep apnoea or epilepsy

Many children who sleepwalk have night terrors as well.

What to do when your child is sleepwalking?

If your child is a sleepwalker, the best thing to do is to calmly comfort them and return them to bed.

You can minimise the risk of injury from sleepwalking by locking windows, removing obstacles and using a monitoring system to alert others to unexpected movement. You should gently and calmly direct them back to bed rather than trying to wake them, as this may startle and distress them.

When should I see my doctor?

Most people will not need to see a doctor. However, you should see a doctor if:

  • you or your child are sleepwalking every night
  • sleepwalking is affecting how well you or your child function during the day
  • you have concerns about sleepwalking

Your doctor will probably begin by asking about your symptoms and medical history. They might also suggest that you undergo some investigations to rule out other medical conditions, such as obstructive sleep apnoea, which can increase the risk of sleepwalking.

You might also be referred to a sleep specialist for a sleep study in which your brain waves, heartbeat and breathing are measured, and a video records movement of your arms and legs while you sleep.

How is sleepwalking treated?

Having healthy sleep habits can help, such as earlier and regular bedtimes, winding down in the hour before bedtime, avoiding caffeine and not going to bed too soon or too long after a meal.

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Last reviewed: August 2020

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