Being woken up by someone talking, mumbling, or just generally blabbering away in their sleep can be a bizarre, unnerving experience. You may also be wondering how it works. Answer: Your brain doesn’t fully shut off when you’re sleeping. In fact, a small part of your brain is still awake, making sleep talking in full, coherent sentences possible.
Sleep talking is a kind of parasomnia, or an atypical sleep behavior. Although parasomnias are not considered “normal,” sleep talking is actually fairly common, especially among children. Thankfully, though certainly strange to the observer, most instances of sleep talking are harmless and don’t require treatment.
As fun as this fact may be, sleep talking can be disruptive and downright irritating if it happens frequently, disrupting the sleep of the person witnessing it.
Let’s take a deeper dive into what sleep talking is, what it looks like, what causes it—and most importantly, how to cope if sleep talking is a reality for you.
What is sleep talking?
Sleep talking, also known as somniloquy, is one of several parasomnias that can happen while you’re busy getting your Zzz’s. Parasomnias are sleep disorders characterized by disruptive, abnormal behaviors during sleep. Other examples of parasomnias include sleepwalking and sleep terrors.
“Parasomnia is the term that just means weird things that happen during sleep,” explains Dr. Steven Feinsilver, a sleep medicine specialist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York.
It’s possible to have more than one “weird thing” happen at once, says Feinsilver. For example, some people sleep talk and sleepwalk at the same time. But sleep talking alone does often happen on its own, and is perhaps the most common parasomnias out there, he says.
Sleep talking is pretty common
One study found that up to 66% of people have talked in their sleep at one time or another, and 17% have done so during the past three months. Sleep talking is even more common in kids, with up to 50% of kids aged 3-10 having a bout of somniloquy in the past year.
The thing with sleep talking is that it’s actually hard to know how prevalent it is, because people who talk in their sleep are completely unaware that they are doing it.
“Usually, the person is not aware of these occurrences and are reported to the individual by an observer, commonly a parent, sibling, or bed partner,” explains Ariel Neikrug, Ph.D., a psychologist and sleep medicine specialist with UCI Health.
Symptoms of sleep talking
There is a wide range of possible vocalizations that may happen while you are sleeping. “These can range from incomprehensible vocalizations such as ‘gibberish’ and mumbling to very complex and relatively clear dialogue-like expressions,” says Neikrug. The following sounds are considered sleep talking:
- Variation of sounds from mumbling to clear sentences
A 2017 study found that the majority (59%) of sleep talking is non-verbal, including mumbling, laughing, and shouting. Among the most popular actual words said in sleep, “No!” tops the list. And yes, it’s possible that one’s sleep talking may be laced with profanities; up to 9.7% of instances contained swearwords, according to the study.
Besides dropping an occasional curse word, sleep talkers do sometimes reveal more than they might mean to, says Dr. Marta Maczaj, a sleep medicine specialist at St. Charles Hospital in Port Jefferson, NY.
“If you’re a sleep talker, you want to be careful,” jokes Maczaj. “You might say something you don’t want to say.” Although it’s the exception rather than the rule, sometimes sleep talkers reveal secrets, or other information that they wouldn’t have said if they were conscious and awake, she explains. Still, the majority of the time, sleep talking is completely benign, and often hard for a listener to even decipher.
This leads to another fascinating part of the puzzle: When in our sleep cycles does sleep talking happen? Does it happen while we are in REM sleep (where we do the majority of our dreaming), or during a deeper sleep cycle?
Interestingly, there isn’t a particular part of the sleep cycle where sleep talking is more likely to occur. “Sleep talking can occur at any stage of sleep,” Neikrug notes. “As currently considered as a normal variant of parasomnia, it may occur both in REM and Non-REM sleep.”
What causes sleep talking?
1. It may be genetic
As mysterious as sleep talking can be to someone who observes it, sleep talking is also a bit of a mystery to sleep specialists and researchers. “The ideology of sleep talking is not well understood,” says Neikrug. “To my knowledge, very little work has attempted to evaluate the mechanisms associated with this phenomenon.”
There are however some indications that sleep talking may have a genetic component, Neikrug points out, as some studies indicate that sleep talking runs in families. Children are more prone to sleep talking than adults, but it seems to affect both men and women at similar rates.
2. You may have certain risk factors
More than anything, there are several known risk factors that might make you more prone to having an episode of sleep talking. People who have erratic sleep schedules or who are sleep deprived might be more prone to sleep talking, as are people who are experiencing heightened life stress. Medications that disrupt your sleep, and recreational substances like caffeine or alcohol, can make you more likely to sleep talk.
Additionally, there are certain medical conditions that might make you more likely to have a sleep talking bout, including sleep apnea, PTSD, or a sleep disorder called REM sleep behavior disorder.
3. You might be experiencing elevated stress
Some people might wonder if there is some deeper meaning to it when someone is talking in their sleep. Are they trying to tell you something? Is there a psychological or spiritual reason for sleep talking?
Besides the fact that increased stress and PTSD are possible risk factors for sleep talking, there isn’t usually any more profound reason why it happens, says Neikrug.
“It means that they are experiencing a normal variant of parasomnia,” she clarifies. “Spiritual reasons have been attributed to many poorly understood phenomena, but these are generally not evidence-based,” she adds.
Is sleep talking dangerous?
For the most part, sleep talking is not something that affects the person doing it in any serious way. Sleep talking might be embarrassing if you have no idea you are doing it — and your partner likes to point out the things you say. On the other hand, what you say in your sleep could also be turned into a bonding event between you and the listener, especially if the things you say are out of the ordinary or revealing.
The concern comes if the sleep talking is happening alongside other parasomnias or sleep disorders, chiefly sleep walking or erratic sleep movements. Sleep walkers can be a danger to themselves, says Feinsilver, because they aren’t looking where they are going, and can bump into things and fall.
Not only that, but if you are moving around in your sleep while you are talking, this might be indicative of another, more serious sleep disorder called REM behavior disorder, explains Maczaj.
“When someone has REM behavior disorder, they can punch, kick, move, walk, they can do many things physically, but they very frequently will also talk or yell or scream.” If you are exhibiting any of these behaviors alongside sleep talking, Maczaj recommends you see a sleep specialist for an evaluation.
How to stop sleep talking
If you are a sleep talker (or rather, someone has told you that you are), you might be wondering if it’s possible to stop the behavior. Although there aren’t any specific medications or treatments for sleep talking, there are several lifestyle changes to consider if sleep talking is becoming bothersome for you, or for anyone who shares sleep with you.
1. Reinforce healthy sleep hygiene practices
One of the main areas that you should tackle is your “sleep hygiene,” which has to do with adopting healthy practices around sleep. “Sleep hygiene doesn’t mean brushing your teeth before you go to bed,” says Maczaj. “Sleep hygiene basically means practicing good behaviors, like a regular sleep-wake timee, and a wind-down time before bed.”
2. Reduce or remove alcohol consumption
Another area that can have a large impact on parasomnias like sleep talking is alcohol consumption, says Feinsilver. This is especially true if you drink close to bedtime.
“Alcohol is a terrible hypnotic sleeping substance,” Feinsilver warns. “But it’s a terrible sleeping pill, because although you might fall asleep quickly, you might do some strange things in the night later.”
3. Work on decreasing life stress
Besides practicing smart sleep hygiene and refraining from drinking before bed, decreasing life stress, and addressing any physical or mental health issues that may be contributing to your sleep talking, is advised. Implementing a calming routine, such as box breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or a warm bath before bed, may help reduce your stress levels before you fall asleep.
“In some cases, sleep talking results from other disorders such as obstructive sleep apnea or REM behavior disorder,” says Neikrug. “Treatment of the major sleep disorder may help prevent sleep talking occurrences.”
Tips for sharing a bed
Learning that you are sleep talking can be unsettling, or even mortifying, but sleep talking is usually most bothersome for the person who is on the receiving end of it.
If your sleep talker is waking you up frequently, you can encourage them to try to tackle the problem through lifestyle changes, or by visiting a sleep specialist. But if nothing seems to be helping, there are a couple of things you can do to make the situation more bearable.
If you are sure that the situation is benign — i.e., your partner is just mumbling or talking — Maczaj’s suggestion is that you invest in a good pair of ear plugs. “It sounds cruel! But you could wear ear plugs to muffle the noise,” she says.
Another option is to invest in a good quality white noise machine. “Bed partners wake up because they are triggered by an intermittent signal such as a door slamming, a dog barking, or by a siren going off,” Maczaj explains. “So if you have a background white noise generator, then you’re less likely to hear the sleep-talking as an intermittent noise.”
When to see a doctor about sleep talking
Again, sleep talking is usually more of a nuisance than anything else. But if your sleep talking involves violent, unexpected movements; if you are screaming or yelling in your sleep; or if you are also sleep walking, you might want to see a doctor to rule out any more serious sleep disorders.
There is one other instance where Feinsilver recommends that you seek medical treatment, and that’s if you are an adult who has suddenly and frequently started sleep talking. Most of us start sleep talking as children, and while the majority of us outgrow it, some of us continue, he explains.
Being a lifetime sleep talker can be normal, but if sleep talking is a brand new behavior for you, particularly if you are an older individual Feinsilver recommends that you receive medical attention, to rule out any more serious causes, such as REM behavior disorder, PTSD, reaction to a medication, severe stress, or sleep apnea.
Should you worry about sleep talking?
If your toddler or your bed partner talks in their sleep — or if you have been told that you are exhibiting this odd behavior — you have likely wondered if there is a cause for worry. You probably also want to know why on earth it happens.
The good news is that, for the most part, it’s just one of those peculiar, but harmless aspects of sleep. If you are a sleep talker, you are in good company, since most of us have done it at one time or another.
As with everything, if sleep talking is more than just an annoyance, if you are exhibiting additional concerning symptoms besides talking, or if sleep talking has cropped up out of nowhere, it’s always a good idea to check in with a sleep specialist for an evaluation.