Sleepwalking, or somnambulism, is a parasomnia disorder that causes people to get out of bed and walk and/or perform waking activities while they are still asleep. According to the latest data, more than 8 million Americans — or roughly 3.6% of the U.S. adult population — walk in their sleep.
Sleepwalkers are prone to falling and other safety risks. However, a commonly held myth states it may be harmful to wake up sleepwalkers when they are mobile. This is technically inaccurate, but there are important steps to follow when waking a sleepwalker in order to keep both the sleepwalker and the waker safe from bodily harm.
What is the best way to wake up a sleepwalker? Read on to learn more.
What Causes Sleepwalking?
The term ‘parasomnia‘ refers to a disorder characterized by abnormal or unusual behaviors that occur while the individual is asleep. Sleepwalking is one of the most common examples of parasomnia; others include bedwetting and sleep-related eating disorder.
According to the Mayo Clinic, the nature of sleepwalking episodes varies from person to person. Some sleepwalkers will physically get out of bed and walk around their house. Other potential behaviors for sleepwalkers include:
- Leaving the house and walking on foot or driving away in a vehicle
- Engaging in sexual activity with one’s sleep partner
- Relieving oneself in odd places, such as a closet or corner of a room
- Becoming violent and physically attacking others (although this is much rarer)
Sleepwalking — like most parasomnia events — almost always occurs during slow wave non-REM sleep, which is the heaviest stage of sleep before REM (deep sleep) begins. Although times vary, most sleepers experience sleepwalking within two hours or less of falling asleep.
Many sleepwalkers will physically open their eyes, although their expression will be vacant and they will not usually respond to other people. After they wake up, many sleepwalkers are confused or disoriented for several minutes. They typically have little to no memory of the previous night’s sleepwalking episode; however, many are unable to concentrate or focus properly the next day as a result of sleep disruption.
Sleepwalking is not considered a serious medical condition in most cases, especially if the patient is a teenager or younger; most sleepwalking tendencies begin to taper off during adolescence. However, sleepwalking has been linked to certain sleep disorders and other medical conditions. Sleepwalkers may want to consider seeking medical attention under the following circumstances:
- Frequent episodes: Sleepwalking that occurs more than once per week is considered frequent.
- Serious risks: If a sleepwalking episode has led to potentially dangerous results — i.e., the sleepwalker got into and drove a motor vehicle — then medical attention may be warranted.
- Sleep disruption: Sleepwalking affects not only the individual who walks in their sleep, but also members of their household who must assist them. This can be problematic for all involved if sleepwalking episodes are frequent.
- Adult incidence: Most sleepwalkers begin exhibiting the parasomnia behavior while they are still children. Those who sleepwalk for the first time as an adult may want to visit a doctor to ensure the condition is not linked to a more serious disorder.
In addition to age, genetics may also play a role in sleepwalking. A child/adult is much likelier to engage in sleepwalking if at least one parent was also a sleepwalker. Other risk factors that increase one’s chances for sleepwalking include the consumption of certain substances, such as alcohol and hypnotic medications, as well as restless legs syndrome, sleep-disordered breathing, and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Lastly, sleep deprivation is thought to cause some individuals to sleepwalk.
How Should You Wake Up a Sleepwalker?
When attempting to wake up a sleepwalker, here are some general guidelines to follow:
- Avoid physical contact if possible: Touching a sleepwalker in any way can trigger unintended consequences. The individual may lash out and attempt to physically harm you, or they may try to flee. Rather than making physical contact, attempt to wake up the sleepwalker by making loud noises.
- If touching is needed, be gentle: Sometimes physical contact can’t be avoided, especially if the sleepwalker appears to be putting themselves at risk (i.e., they get into a vehicle). In these instances, gently turn the sleepwalker around to face their bedroom — or, in multi-story houses, toward the stairs leading to their bedroom.
- Escort the sleepwalker until they are back in bed: Taking care not to make sudden physical contact, guide the sleepwalker by following at a close (but safe) distance and open doors for them as needed. If stairs are involved, be sure not to stand directly beneath the sleepwalker.
- Calm the sleepwalker when they wake up: Sleepwalkers rarely remember anything about their episodes, and often wake up feeling groggy and disoriented. If you have helped a sleepwalker get back to bed, they may be confused upon waking. Simply tell them they’ve been sleepwalking and offer to stay with them for a few minutes until the confusion subsides.
Remember: the notion that waking a sleepwalker will physically harm them is patently false — provided you follow the guidelines listed above. Your top priority should be to keep both the sleepwalker and yourself safe from bodily harm during these episodes.
Strategies to Reduce Sleepwalking Episodes
The following measures can be helpful for reducing sleepwalking in children and adults:
- Avoid heavy stimuli at least one hour before bed and opt for more relaxing activities, such as reading or soaking in a tub.
- Install a door alarm, which will be triggered whenever the door is opened or closed.
- Sleepwalk-proof your household by removing sharp objects, large obstacles, and other objects that can cause harm to sleepwalkers.
- Establish a sleep routine — and stick to it. Many children and adults sleepwalk due to sleep deprivation, so a good night’s rest is key. Avoid alcohol and certain prescription medications before bedtime if possible, and try to fall asleep and get up at the same time each day (even on the weekends).