How common is sleepwalking?
Sleepwalking is a common problem. Up to 30% of children will sleepwalk at some point.
Although the behaviour is more common in children, the number of adults affected is higher than previously thought.
An American study carried out in 2012 found that of 15,929 adults surveyed, 573 (3.6%) reported having at least one sleepwalking episode in the previous year.
Sleepwalking is walking or carrying out complexactivities while not fully awake.
It usually occurs during deep sleep, which is at a maximum during the early part of the night, so it tends to occur in the first few hours after falling asleep.
Sleepwalking can start at any age but is more common in children. Most children will grow out of it by the time they reach puberty, but in some cases the behaviour can persist into adult life.
This page explains:
- why some people sleepwalk
- what happens when a person sleepwalks
- what you should do if you find someone sleepwalking
- treating sleepwalking
- preventing accidents
Why some people sleepwalk
The exact cause of sleepwalking is unknown but it seems to run in families. You’re more likely to sleepwalk if one or both of your parents have a history of sleepwalking or night terrors.
The following factors can trigger sleepwalking or make it worse:
- sleep deprivation
- fatigue (extreme tiredness)
- stress and anxiety
- drinking too much alcohol
- taking recreational drugs
- certain types of medication, such as some hypnotics
- being startled by a sudden noise or touch and waking from deep sleep, or waking from deep sleep to pass urine
What happens when a person sleepwalks
Some people who sleepwalk just sit up in bed and look around, while others get out of bed and walk about, open cupboards, get dressed or eat. In extreme cases, some people have been known to walk out of the house and carry out complex activities, such as driving a car.
The person will usually have their eyes open while sleepwalking but will look straight through family members and not recognise them. However, they’re often able to manoeuvre around objects.
If you talk to a person who is sleepwalking, they may partially respond or say things that don’t make sense.
Most sleepwalking episodes don’t last longer than 10 minutes. At the end of the episode, the person may wake up or they may return to bed and go back to sleep. If woken while sleepwalking, the person will usually feel confused and won’t remember the episode.
What to do if you find someone sleepwalking
The best thing to do if you find someone sleepwalking is to make sure they’re safe. Don’t shout or startle the person so that they wake up.
Gently guide them back to bed. If undisturbed, they’ll often go back to sleep again. Sometimes, gently waking the person fully (particularly children) when they appear to be coming out of the episode, before settling them back to sleep, will prevent another episode occurring from the same deep sleep cycle.
There’s no specific treatment for sleepwalking, but it generally helps to try and get enough sleep and have a regular and relaxing routine before bedtime. Read more about how to establish a regular bedtime routine.
In adults, hypnotherapy is sometimes effective in treating sleepwalking. If episodes are frequent, sleep studies may be needed to rule out other sleep disorders that could be triggering the behaviours, such as obstructive sleep apnoea(OSA) or periodic leg movements in sleep often associated with restless leg syndrome (RLS).
Medication isn’t usually used to treat sleepwalking. However, it may sometimes be recommended for a few nights when an increase in the frequency of episodes is anticipated, or if a person is sleeping in an unfamiliar environment. In some cases, antidepressants may help reduce the frequency of sleepwalking episodes.
Occasional sleepwalking episodes don’t need further assessment. It’s only necessary to seek medical help if the number of sleepwalking episodes increases, or if the behaviours lead to dangerous activities which risk injury to the person sleepwalking or to others.
It’s important to keep the areas of your home where a person may sleepwalk free of breakable or potentially harmful objects, and to remove any items that they could trip over. It’s also a good idea to keep windows and doors locked.
If your child sleepwalks, don’t let them sleep on the top bed of a bunk bed. You may also want to fit safety gates at the top of the stairs.