Sleepwalking: What Causes It and What to Do About It

Why do people sleepwalk? Could it be a sign of an underlying health problem? Are there treatment options? Let's attempt to unravel the mysteries of sleepwalking and explore ways to manage it.


You wake in the middle of the night, startled by a noise in your bedroom. As you open your eyes, you see your 5-year-old daughter standing motionless next to your bed, staring at you like a zombie. While this is certainly unsettling (understatement!), the scenario is actually fairly common, especially for parents of young children.

What Is Sleepwalking?

Sleepwalking (also known as somnambulism) is a very common sleep disorder that occurs in roughly 15% of children under the age of 6. Typically outgrown by the teenage years, sleepwalking is much less common in adults.

During a sleepwalking episode, the brain does something quite unusual. It’s essentially caught in-between a waking and a sleeping state. Part of the brain is asleep, while other parts are awake. This leads to an odd combination of walking and movement as if the person is awake, but with very little understanding and interaction with the surroundings.

According to the Mayo Clinic, a sleepwalker may:

  • Get out of bed and walk around
  • Sit up in bed and open his or her eyes
  • Have a glazed, glassy-eyed expression
  • Not respond or communicate with others
  • Be difficult to wake up during an episode
  • Be disoriented or confused for a short time after being awakened
  • Not remember the episode in the morning
  • Have problems functioning during the day because of disturbed sleep
  • Have sleep terrors in addition to sleepwalking

Though the activities below are not as common, the Mayo Clinic reports, sometimes a sleepwalker will:

  • Do routine activities, such as getting dressed, talking or eating
  • Leave the house
  • Drive a car
  • Engage in unusual behavior, such as urinating in a closet
  • Engage in sexual activity without awareness
  • Get injured, for example, by falling down the stairs or jumping out a window
  • Become violent during the period of brief confusion immediately after waking or, occasionally, during sleepwalking

What Causes Sleepwalking?

In many cases, sleepwalking is genetic. If a parent sleepwalked as a child, the child is twice as likely to experience the sleep disorder, as well. The likelihood increases further if both parents were sleepwalkers.

We also know that the younger someone is, the more likely he is to sleepwalk. Why are kids more likely to sleepwalk than teenagers? Sleepwalking typically occurs during a partial awakening from the deepest stage of non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep, and the younger you are, the more time you spend in this deep sleep.

While sleepwalking can occur unprovoked, it can also be triggered by an external disruption like noise. Sleep deprivation, stress, and fever can also bring on an episode. Underlying medical issues, such as gastroesophageal reflux, sleep apnea, and eczema are also associated with sleepwalking.

Treatment for Sleepwalking

When it comes to sleepwalking, isolated incidents typically aren’t cause for concern. That said, anyone who sleepwalks is at risk for unintentionally harming himself during an episode, so keeping the sleepwalker safe is priority No. 1. If you live with someone who experiences sleepwalking, it’s critical to ensure he cannot leave the home and that there aren’t objects that could potentially cause harm.

The question most people have about treating sleepwalking is this: Should you try to wake the person? While old wives’ tales caution against waking a sleepwalker for fear it could cause him to have a heart attack or die—can’t make this stuff up!—we know this is simply not true. The best strategy when dealing with a sleepwalker is to gently guide the person back to bed; trying to wake him up completely could lead to confusion or even aggression.

When to Seek Professional Help

Although sleepwalking has a dramatic presentation, in most cases it isn’t serious and resolves itself over time. That said, if you or your children have frequent bouts of sleepwalking that are disruptive or lead to injury, please talk with your doctor. Also, if a child’s sleepwalking persists into the adolescent years, it’s recommended that you address this with your pediatrician to make sure there aren’t underlying sleep disorders such as sleep apnea at play. Likewise, if an adult suddenly starts experiencing sleepwalking episodes out of the blue, it’s wise to consult a healthcare professional.

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