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Sleepwalking (somnambulism)

3-minute read

If you get out of bed and move around as though awake, while you are actually still asleep, you are said to be sleepwalking (also known as somnambulism). Treatment isn't usually needed, but there are things you can do to lower the chance of sleepwalking.

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.

Sleepwalking tends to occur early in the night.

Most people who sleepwalk start between 4 and 12 years of age 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. 

Causes of 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

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.

Should you wake a sleepwalker?

There is no clear answer. Some experts believe that you should, since sometimes people hurt themselves or others while sleepwalking. Others believe you should not, because it can be quite hard to do and they might become startled or lash out.

The best advice is that if you’re going to try to wake them, do it slowly and carefully.

When to see a 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.

Treatment of sleepwalking

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. 

Some people are also advised to use sedatives - but only in the short term.

Last reviewed: August 2017

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