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Sleepwalking (somnambulism)

5-minute read

Key facts

  • Sleepwalking is when you walk around while you are asleep. It’s a type of sleep disorder.
  • Sleepwalking itself harmful but you may do something that can cause you to get hurt.
  • If your child is a sleepwalker, the best thing to do is to calmly comfort them and return them to bed.
  • Most people don’t need treatment for sleepwalking.

What is sleepwalking?

Sleepwalking is a type of sleep disorder. It simply means that you move around while you are asleep. You will do things without knowing about it. You usually can't remember what you have done.

You may just walk around a room or the whole house, and then go back to bed. Other people might talk, shout or eat. Some people even move furniture or drive a car.

Treatment isn’t usually needed for people who sleepwalk. However, there are things you can do to lower the chance of sleepwalking.

Sleepwalking usually happens early in the night.

Children are more likely to sleepwalk than adults. Sleepwalking is most common between 4 and 12 years of age. Children usually grow out of it.

However, some people continue to sleepwalk when they are teenagers or adults. Sometimes, sleepwalking starts in adulthood.

What happens when you sleepwalk?

Sleepwalking usually lasts for only a few minutes. Sometimes it can last longer. Some people sleepwalk only rarely. Other people sleepwalk a lot. Some people may sleepwalk many times in a night.

Sleepwalking itself isn’t harmful. However, you might do something that can cause you to get hurt. This could happen if the sleepwalker climbs out of a window.

People who sleepwalk can get hurt if they walk into objects. They could also injure other people. This isn’t deliberate. When you sleepwalk you aren’t aware of what you are doing.

Sleepwalking can affect your quality of sleep and also the quality of sleep of the people you live with.

What causes sleepwalking?

It isn’t exactly clear what causes sleepwalking. There are some things that are known. Genetics plays a role. You are more likely to be a sleepwalker if your parents sleepwalked.

You are more likely to sleepwalk if you:

  • don’t get enough sleep
  • don’t have regular sleeping hours
  • feel stress or anxiety
  • are sick or have a fever
  • take certain medicines
  • drink too much 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.

There are ways you can lower their risk of injury from sleepwalking.

  • You can lock windows and external doors to keep your child or another person safe in your house.
  • You can remove large or breakable objects from the room.
  • You can use a monitoring system in your child’s room. This can send an alert if there is movement in the room.

You should gently and calmly direct your sleepwalking child back to bed.

Don’t try to wake them up. This could startle and distress them.

Don’t lock anyone in their room as this could be a fire safety risk.

When should I see a doctor?

Most people will not need to see a doctor. 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 are worried about sleepwalking

Your doctor will probably begin by asking about your symptoms and medical history.

They might also suggest that you have some tests, These tests can rule out other health issues. Conditions such as obstructive sleep apnoea can increase your chance of sleepwalking.

How is sleepwalking treated?

Most children grow out of sleepwalking.

Sometimes your doctor will give you advice about creating good sleep habits or sleep hygiene. You might be referred to a psychologist to manage stress or anxiety.

Healthy sleep habits can help. This includes:

  • a regular bedtime
  • having an earlier bedtime
  • relaxing or winding down in the hour before bedtime
  • don’t go to bed too soon or too long after eating a meal
  • adults should not have caffeine before bed

You might also be referred to a sleep specialist. They can do a sleep study. A sleep study measures brain waves, heartbeat and breathing. A video can show how much you move your arms and legs while you sleep.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: January 2023

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