Four percent of Americans have experienced sleepwalking in the past year, and 30% of adults say they’ve had an episode of sleepwalking at least once in their lives. If you live alone, you may not be aware of the behavior and as a result, these statistics may not be accurate.  Sleepwalking usually occurs in the first few hours after falling asleep. It usually happens between stage 3 and stage 4 of non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep. Sleepwalkers typically sleep with less stability through these stages. When you sleepwalk, part of your brain is asleep and part is awake. Most sleepwalking episodes last less than 10 minutes and the sleepwalker will typically have no memory of the event. Behaviors other than walking can occur during a sleepwalking episode including:

  • sitting up in bed
  • talking, screaming or shouting
  • opening eyes while still sleeping
  • having a blank facial expression
  • driving
  • difficulty in arousing sleepwalker
  • confusion or disorientation when awakened
  • strange behaviors such as urinating in closets

Risk Factors for Sleep Walking

There are many factors which can increase your risk of sleepwalking. Eighty percent of sleepwalkers have at least one family member affected by sleepwalking or sleep terrors. People with certain mental health and substance use disorders, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), major depressive disorder, other anxiety disorders, and alcohol use disorder, are also more likely to sleepwalk. Taking medications such as antidepressants, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), over-the-counter sleep medications, or certain sleep-hypnotic medications can also increase the risk of sleepwalking for people who are predisposed to the behavior.

Men and women are equally likely to sleepwalk, but the risk of the condition does decrease as you get older. If you have another sleep disorder such as sleep apnea, circadian rhythm sleep disorder, or insomnia disorder, you’re also more likely to sleepwalk. Avoid sleep deprivation and aim for more than seven hours of sleep a night on average to reduce your risk. Also do what you can to control your environment so that you are not frequently woken up by noise, light or pets throughout the night. Incorporating healthy and relaxing activities that reduce stress can also decrease your risk of sleepwalking.

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Children and Sleep Walking

Children are more likely to sleepwalk than adults, with the peak prevalence of sleepwalking occurring at around age 10. One third of children who experience sleep terrors in their earlier years are also more likely to sleepwalk as older children. Your child is also more likely to sleepwalk if you are a sleepwalker, if they have sleep apnea, or if they are bedwetters.  Lack of sleep, fatigue, illness, fever, medications, an irregular sleep schedule, and stress can also increase the risk of sleepwalking in children.

Children might sleepwalk around for a few seconds or for up to half an hour. They might seem dazed, move clumsily, or sit up and bed and rub their eyes or fidget with their pajamas. They also may urinate, so don’t let your child drink too much at night or make sure they use the bathroom before going to bed. If you find your child sleepwalking, gently guide them back to bed. Waking up won’t hurt them; simply stay calm, comfort them, and help them get back to sleep.

Sleepwalking does not indicate an emotional or physical problem. Most children will outgrow the behavior by adolescence. However, moving around while asleep can be hazardous and potentially dangerous for your child. If you’re concerned that your child is a sleepwalker, it’s a good idea to use safety locks on doors and remove tripping hazards and dangerous or breakable objects from a child’s reach. Children who sleepwalk should not sleep on the top of a set of bunk beds. If you have stairs in your house, protect your child from falling or diving down a staircase by putting a safety gate at the top. To help your child relax and sleep well, try playing soft music to help a child relax.

How to Avoid Sleepwalking

It’s important to talk with your doctor if you are experiencing sleepwalking, as you are likely to sleepwalk again. Most people don’t require treatment for sleepwalking, but your doctor may want to rule out other medical conditions such as seizures. If you’re an older adult, sleepwalking may be linked to a neurocognitive disorder such as dementia. Getting treatment for other sleep disorders like sleep apnea and insomnia can also eliminate sleepwalking. Be sure to tell your doctor what medications you’re taking, whether you use drugs or drink alcohol and whether there is a history of sleepwalking in your family. Doctors don’t typically prescribe medication for sleepwalking, but may sometimes prescribe a short-acting tranquilizer. Your doctor may also refer you to a mental health professional who can work with you to help you lower stress and anxiety.

If you live with another person, let them know you are a sleepwalker and tell them to keep you safe from accidentally harming yourself and to guide you back to bed if they witness you sleepwalking. It is a myth that a sleepwalker should not be awakened. It’s far better to be a bit confused or disoriented for a few minutes when someone wakes you up than to continue moving around in your sleep. If you live alone, clear the floor of clutter and consider installing safety gates on stairways. If you are at risk of driving, hide your keys in a secure place.

Lifestyle changes can also reduce your risk of sleepwalking. Limit your use of alcohol, and try to get at least seven hours of sleep every night. Engage in daily or weekly relaxation activities (meditation can be helpful) to reduce stress, or consider meeting with a mental health professional to address your anxiety. Above all, it’s important to not be discouraged in your efforts. Help is available, and with the right efforts, you can get a good night’s sleep that’s both healthy and safe.

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Last Updated: Nov 18, 2018