All About Sleepwalking

Most children will outgrow sleepwalking and require no treatment for the sleep disorder. But make sure to keep the sleepwalker’s surroundings safe to prevent injury.

Sleepwalking, also called somnambulism, is a sleep disorder that holds a lot of fascination. After all, sleepwalkers can perform everyday activities while they’re asleep and usually will not have any recollection of it the next day. Sleepwalkers may talk, walk, or even drive a car.

Sleepwalking affects roughly 1 percent to 15 percent of the general population, but occurs more often in children, typically ages 4 to 8, than in adults. Treatment is usually not necessary, as most children will outgrow the behavior. However, parents should take steps to prevent injury to a child during a sleepwalking episode.

It is often very difficult to awaken a sleepwalker because sleepwalking happens during the deep sleep phase, and, in fact, you shouldn’t attempt it. “Do not try to awaken your child during sleepwalking,” says William C. Kohler, MD, medical director of the Florida Sleep Institute in Spring Hill and director of pediatric sleep services at University Community Hospital in Tampa. “There is no benefit to awaking them. They may perceive that they are being attacked and act out.” Instead, Kohler suggests you lead them gently back to their bed.

A Family History of Sleepwalking

It is not clear what causes sleepwalking in children, although it appears to run in families. Sleepwalking is more likely to occur in children who do not get enough sleep and in kids with sleep-related breathing problems, such as sleep apnea, and other sleep disorders like night terrors and bedwetting.

For adults, sleepwalking causes include:

  • Not getting enough sleep
  • Anxiety
  • Taking drugs that cause sedation or drinking too much alcohol
  • Infection or fever

More Than Just Walking

When you sleep you go through different sleep stages, including rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-REM sleep. Sleepwalking typically occurs during deep non-REM sleep early in the night.

Symptoms of sleepwalking can range from sitting up in bed and looking around to getting up and walking to driving a car. Sleepwalkers may also talk in their sleep or perform inappropriate behaviors, such as urinating in a closet instead of the bathroom. A sleepwalking episode can last anywhere from a few seconds to up to 30 minutes.

Can Sleepwalking Be Stopped?

Most people who sleepwalk do not require treatment. Children usually outgrow the behavior. However, if sleepwalking is accompanied by other symptoms, such as snoring, your child should get a medical evaluation. For adults, simply getting more sleep may be all that’s needed to stop sleepwalking.

Both adults and children may benefit from hypnosis, which, according to Dr. Kohler, is the most effective treatment for sleepwalking. Short-acting tranquilizers and anti-anxiety medications have also been shown to reduce the incidence of sleepwalking.

Sleepwalking Safety Tips

Although sleepwalking may not require treatment, certain precautions should be taken to protect the sleepwalker from injury during an episode:

  • Sleep on the ground floor or put gates at the top of the stairs.
  • Remove any sharp or breakable objects from the room or items that could be tripped over, such as electrical cords.
  • Lock all doors and windows and attach a bell or alarm to signal their opening.
  • Keep car keys hidden or out of reach.

Most sleepwalkers do not require treatment, but if you notice troubling symptoms, like snoring, sleepwalking more than a few times per week, or injury during sleepwalking, tell your doctor. It might be time to try hypnosis or another approach.

By Hedy Marks, MPH – Medically reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH