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When people find out from a partner that they’ve been talking in their sleep, they often get nervous that they revealed some deep, dark secret, or that something is wrong with them. It’s unnerving to say the least to discover that you uttered something in your sleep, especially when you have no recollection of doing so.
Here’s the good news: sleep talking is generally nothing to worry about, and the sleep talker’s statements shouldn’t be psychoanalyzed as revelatory of some deeper truth. As sleep specialist Michael Breus, Ph.D. says, “There’s no data to suggest that [sleep talking] is either predictive in nature or gives you a window into their subconscious or anything like that.”
The scientific term for sleep talking is “somniloquy,” and it’s considered a parasomnia. Parasomnias describe sleep disorders that occur during the transitions between different stages of sleep, including between wakefulness and sleep or between light sleep and REM. Parasomnias range from seriously interfering with a person’s circadian rhythms, as with delayed sleep-phase syndrome, to creating the extreme fear caused by night terrors. Sometimes, as is often the case with sleep talking, they’re completely harmless.
People talk about all sorts of things in their sleep. Some people carry on full conversations with some unseen participant, while others swear, voice a few random words, or utter gibberish that makes no sense at all. Sleep talking during light sleep is usually easier to comprehend, while by deep sleep or REM sleep, it may take the form of groans.
Sleep talkers may yell or whisper. Sleep talking episodes usually last about 30 seconds at most.
Sleep talking is actually pretty common, especially among young children. About half of all children under 10 talk in their sleep. Like other sleep issues common to childhood, such as wetting the bed and sleepwalking, sleep talking usually goes away naturally with age.
Only about 5% of adults regularly talk in their sleep, although two-thirds of adults say something in their sleep at least once every few months.
While boys and girls are equally prone to sleep talking, among adults it appears to be more common in men than in women.
Researchers still aren’t sure why we talk in our sleep. It may run in families, or it may be related to a mental health disorder.
Instances of sleep talking may be brought on by stress, fevers, medications, substance abuse, or sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation itself can be due to stress or another sleep problem, such as insomnia or sleep apnea.
Despite the popular misconception that sleep talking reflects what a person is dreaming about, EEG recordings show that sleep talking can occur during any stage of sleep, REM or not.
As we said, sleep talking is generally nothing to worry about. For most people, it occurs occasionally, and goes away as spontaneously as it came on. However, there are a few instances where it can be indicative of a larger problem.
REM sleep behavior disorder (RBD) describes a disorder where people violently kick, punch, or yell out during their dreams. In normal REM sleep, your brain paralyzes your muscles to prevent you from physically acting out your dreams and potentially hurting yourself. People with RBD do not experience this muscle paralysis, and therefore are able to act out their dreams, which puts them at risk of harming themselves or their sleep partners.
Night terrors are experienced by fewer than 7% of children and 1% of adults. People with night terrors wake up suddenly by a jolt to their nervous system, filled with fear, dread, and confusion, combined with a rapid heart beat and sweats. These extreme physical sensations makes night terrors distinct from nightmares, along with the fact that people typically do not remember their night terror. Similar to RBD, people will scream and kick around when the night terror is happening, unlike nightmares where a person’s muscles remain paralyzed in REM sleep.
Two other related conditions to sleep talking include sleepwalking (somnambulism), and nocturnal sleep-related eating disorder. With either of these, the person walks or eats when they are sleeping, often not remembering it the following day.
If your child’s or your own sleep talking is accompanied by nightmares, physical fear, sweating, or movement like the kind described above with RBD or night terrors, it’s time to see a doctor. You can also seek out a doctor if your sleep talking comes on suddenly as an adult or is so frequent as to be a disturbance to your bed- or house-mates. Even if it’s not due to a sleep disorder, your doctor may diagnose an underlying issue such as emotional stress or substance abuse.
Parents and sleep partners can help you keep a sleep diary noting when you go to bed, when you wake up, and how often you wake up during the night or talk in your sleep. Besides sleep, keep track of your overall mood, diet, exercise, and intake of alcohol, caffeine, or drugs (since stress and substance abuse can induce sleep talking). You can share this information with your doctor to aid their diagnosis.
If you prefer a DIY approach, there are smartphone snoring apps that record noises you make during sleep. Many of these snoring apps also help with diagnosing sleep talking, noting when the noises occurred during the night and recording the audio. One such app is Sleep Talk Recorder, available on iOS and Android.
Depending on the frequency and volume of your sleep-talking episodes, it can be frustrating for anyone who shares your bed. In that case, here are some ways to make the bedroom quieter for all involved: