Has your toddler ever started speaking gibberish soon after you’ve put them down for a nap? Or maybe you were on vacation, huddled in a hotel room, and you were startled awake by a shout of “No!” or calling for a parent, or even an entire, nonsensical monologue delivered in their sleep! Both of these scenarios can be extremely alarming for parents. But the truth is, sleep talking is pretty normal for toddlers, and even older kids. In fact, talking in one’s sleep peaks between the ages of 2 and 12.
We caught up with some experts in the field to help parents understand what causes sleep talking in kids, what this phenomenon looks (or sounds) like, what parents should do if it happens, and whether there’s any reason to worry. (Spoiler alert: There’s almost never a reason to worry — really!)
What is sleep talking?
Sleep talking is a type of parasomnia. “Parasomnias are various disorders that arise during sleep, such as sleep talking, sleepwalking, and night terrors,” explains Dr. Thomas Kilkenny, director of the Institute of Sleep Medicine at Staten Island University Hospital. “They are much more common in children than in adults.” The official diagnosis for it is called somniloquy, but almost everyone refers to it as sleep talking.
When toddlers engage in sleep talking, it ordinarily happens during the first half of the night, usually just within an hour or two after they go down for the night, according to Kilkenny.
Sleep talking is quite common, with some estimates finding that it occurs in as many as 50% of children. Sleep talking is such a frequent occurrence in kids that it’s basically considered a normal event, even if the occurrence is only occasional, he says. Throughout a person’s lifetime, there’s a 60–65% chance that they’ve talked in their sleep. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) estimates that sleep talking happens in about 3–10% of children.
Why do toddlers talk in their sleep?
Even once you know it’s normal, sleep talking is still strange to hear. So you may be wondering: Why is your child doing this? What causes sleep talking?
The answer is quite fascinating. Kilkenny says that during an episode of sleep talking, it’s like a small part of your child’s brain wakes up while the rest of their brain stays asleep. “This is what triggers the coordination of movements that allows for speech,” he explains.
Dr. June Seliber-Klein, a sleep medicine specialist and chief medical officer at Ognomy Inc., says that sleep talking, like other parasomnias, usually occurs during REM sleep. This is partly why sleep talking occurs most often in young children. “Babies, toddlers, and young children have a higher proportion of REM sleep to non-REM sleep,” Seliber-Klein remarks, adding that this proportion decreases as kids reach adulthood, at which point it then remains stable.
Still, experts are not entirely sure why some kids are more prone to sleep talking than other kids. “There is little known as to why toddlers talk in their sleep, so we do not actually know why they do it or what causes it,” says Dr. Sarah Adams, pediatrician and medical director at Akron Children's Hospital.
According to Adams, sleep talking may be genetic — the children of parents who have a history of sleep talking are more likely to follow suit. There are also certain circumstances that make it more likely for a toddler to sleep talk, such as when they are stressed, sick, overtired, sleep deprived, or prone to nightmares or night terrors.
What does sleep talking in kids sound like?
Sleep talking is a little different for each child and can vary from one episode to another. Sometimes “talking” isn’t exactly what’s happening — sometimes it’s more like muttering or straight-up senseless babbling, rather than full words and sentences. Sometimes it’s an exclamation or even a realistic cry of alarm or call for help, though the child is sound asleep.
Here’s what to expect when you encounter a sleep-talking child, as described by the AAP:
- Some kids will say actual words when they talk in their sleep, but often kids do a fair amount of mumbling — either way, it’s not uncommon for the words your child is saying to make no sense.
- The sounds your child makes won’t usually resemble how they speak when they’re awake.
- These speech sounds are not usually accompanied by intense emotions or agitation.
- Sleep talking isn’t a lengthy thing — it normally lasts for one to five minutes.
- Kids will go back to sleeping soundly once the episode is over.
- If you go to peek in on your child, they will not notice you, even though their eyes may be open.
- Your child will not remember the experience if you ask them about it later.
- Sleep talking can occur during nighttime sleep or nap time sleep.
What to do if your toddler talks in their sleep
If you notice your toddler jabbering on in their sleep, your first instinct might be to try to wake them up, to get them to snap out of the spell they appear to be under. But experts don’t recommend this. “You do not have to do anything, and I do not recommend waking them up,” says Adams. She assures parents that sleep talking is normal and that if your child is doing it, it doesn’t usually mean that they aren’t getting enough sleep.
Seliber-Klein is on the same page. “I would not wake a child who is sleep talking,” she says. “This is a normal feature of REM sleep at times, and we don’t like to disrupt patients in REM sleep.” Seliber-Klein warns that, though rare, waking a child from sleep talking can actually cause a child to begin sleepwalking.
If this happens, do not become alarmed. As the AAP notes, sleepwalking is also fairly typical in children, occurring in 15% of kids, and most common in somewhat older kids, ages 5-16. The main concern with sleepwalking is your child unintentionally hurting themselves, particularly if there are stairs nearby.
Do you need to worry about sleep talking?
“Usually sleep talking is a normal part of development,” Kilkenny assures. Still, there are certain things to watch for if your child is frequently sleep talking. “All parasomnias occur more frequently in children with disorders of sleep fragmentation, such as obstructive sleep apnea,” he explains. That means you should consider contacting your child’s doctor if they are showing signs of sleep apnea, such as snoring or breathing problems during sleep.
Adams agrees that sleep talking isn’t a cause for worry. However, she says there are a few situations in which you should contact your doctor. “As a pediatrician, I would also want to know if the sleep talking becomes more frequent or more severe, the toddler is very sleepy the next day, and if behaviors during sleep talking are of concern, such as limb movement, snoring, agitation, or if they do something dangerous,” she says. You should also call your pediatrician if your child is showing signs of fever or illness while sleep talking, she adds.
Do kids outgrow sleep talking?
Even once you know that sleep talking is normal, you probably still want to know when it will end — because, let’s face it, it can be disruptive at times and can continue to be unsettling even if you know it’s normal.
Thankfully, sleep talking doesn’t last forever. It’s most common in kids and tends to resolve by the time your child hits the teen years, and most often sooner. “It is a good time to call the pediatrician if they are sleep talking after puberty,” Adams recommends. “If they don’t outgrow it, they may need to have a sleep study.”
If it’s interrupting your sleep or disturbing the rest of the family and you want to prevent these episodes from happening, Kilkenny says that focusing on healthy sleep habits can help, since sleep talking is often triggered by sleep deprivation. That means ensuring that your child gets sufficient sleep on a consistent sleep schedule. For a toddler, that means about 11–14 hours of sleep (including naps). For older children, it can be 10–12 hours.
You should also inform any caretakers that your toddler sometimes talks in their sleep. This is especially true if they are being cared for during a sleepover or other event where they’re in an unfamiliar place, as those types of situations are more likely to trigger a sleep-talking event, says Kilkenny.
Just as you needed reassurance that sleep talking is normal and that kids don’t need to be awoken when it happens, you’ll want to relay this same message to your toddler’s babysitter, nanny, or grandparents.