Is It Dangerous to Wake a Sleepwalker? (and Other Tips to Help the Somnambulant People in Your Life)

Photo: Getty Images/AJ_Watt
The first time Caitlin* learned of her fiancé's sleepwalking habit, they were on vacation, staying in an Airbnb. It was the middle of the night when she woke up to find John* getting out of bed to—she falsely assumed—go to the restroom. But she was quickly rustled from her half-asleep state to a wide-eyed status when she realized he was about to do his business in the bedroom closet.

"I jumped out of bed and said, 'Babe! That is not the bathroom!' And then I steered him toward the proper restroom," she tells me. John later cleared up the situation when he told her that he often sleepwalks when he's had a few drinks and is staying away from home. But Caitlin quickly learned that wasn't the extent of John's after-dark shenanigans. "If we're home, he'll get up and go check on 'noises' he thinks he hears, but when he wakes in the morning, he has no recollection," Caitlin says. "One night, he got out of bed and walked over to my side of the bed to check my face, because he thought there were bugs crawling all over me."

From John's perspective, the unconscious wandering is no big deal. "My dad used to sleepwalk all the time, too, and I used to think it was hilarious," he says. "I tend to not remember anything [from sleepwalking episodes], and if I'm not alone, I hear about it in the a.m., and we usually laugh about it."

While that first sleepwalking incident came as a surprise to Caitlin, John's certainly not alone in his REM-time activities. According to a 2012 study in the journal Neurology, nearly 30 percent of people say they've sleepwalked at some point in their lives. But why do people sleepwalk, anyway? Sleep medicine specialist Alex Dimitriu, MD, says it falls under the category of "parasomnia"—essentially, a glitch in a person's sleep cycle. "These states occur when something disturbs our normal sleep depth," says Dr. Dimitriu. "When this happens, the person awakens partially, in between sleep and wake."

"[Parasomnia] states occur when something disturbs our normal sleep depth. When this happens, the person awakens partially, in between sleep and wake." —sleep medicine specialist Alex Dimitriu, MD

Parasomnias can show up in a number of ways. "They can range from simply talking during deep sleep to violently acting out a nightmare during REM sleep," says sleep specialist Shelby Harris, PsyD and author of The Women's Guide to Overcoming Insomnia. Caitlin says John does both of things things as well, and she's able to find both to be more funny than scary. "Once, I woke up and he was punching the air making fake fighting noises, like he was in a movie," she says.

Why do people sleepwalk anyway?

Sleepwalking is a specific parasomnia that occurs during the cycle of deep, slow-wave sleep. "We cycle in and out of slow-wave sleep all night long but tend to spend the most time in this stage during the first third of the night," says Dr. Harris. "During slow-wave sleep, the conscious brain is shut off while the body is still able to move." Sleepwalking episodes, she says, can last anywhere from a few seconds to a half-hour or even longer, but the real danger occurs when some people venture into riskier behavior beyond just walking, like driving a car or firing up the stove to make a midnight snack.

Dr. Harris says most people affected are like John in that they don't remember what happens during a sleepwalking incident. But she adds that unlike him, the majority of sleepwalkers outgrow their behavior after childhood. Indeed, in the aforementioned Neurology study, the lion's share of reported sleepwalking incidents occurred during participants' childhood or their teen years.

But back to the question of why do people sleepwalk, many factors can trigger an episode in adults who are susceptible. "Pain, noise, alcohol, and needing to use the bathroom are all common causes that can disturb sleep," says Dr. Dimitriu. "Being really tired and sleep-deprived can also increase the likelihood of sleepwalking." Dr. Harris adds there's a hereditary element to sleepwalking (just as John notes his dad's similar experiences), and that medical issues like sleep apnea and epilepsy can also lead to an incident. "Stress, anxiety, and depression have all been linked to higher rates of sleepwalking and sleep-talking as well," she says. Yet, paradoxically, so have medications commonly prescribed to treat these conditions, including antidepressants and sleep aids.

What to do if your partner sleepwalks

Sleepwalking stories may make for good dinner-party conversation, sure, but actually navigating episodes with a roommate or an S.O. can be seriously anxiety-provoking. "There’s always a part of me that thinks something scary could happen," says Caitlin.

You don't have to worry that something bad will happen if you accidentally wake them up, despite that common "never wake a sleepwalker" directive. —Dr. Dimitriu

If you find yourself in this situation, experts agree that you should try to steer your sleepwalker back to bed as quickly as possible. "It is important to just quietly, calmly say, 'It is bedtime now,' and move the person to bed," says Dr. Harris. And no, says Dr. Dimitriu, you don't have to worry that something bad will happen if you accidentally wake them up, despite that common "never wake a sleepwalker" directive.

You can also school your sleepwalking bedmate on the things they can do to reduce their chances of stumbling into an episode. "Keeping a regular bed and wake time and allowing enough time to get 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night are essential to minimizing such disturbances," says Dr. Dimitriu. He says the person should also take steps to be as comfortable as possible during sleep, minimizing any kind of pain, noise, or obstructed breathing—even if it's from a stuffy nose—while Dr. Harris recommends cutting out caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol within three hours of bedtime.

Lastly, Dr. Harris stresses the importance of keeping the home safe for the sleepwalker. "Put gates at the top of stairs, locks on doors, set alarms, and keep floors uncluttered." And if despite taking these steps, sleepwalking continues to be an issue, both pros recommend visiting a sleep specialist. With a little expert guidance, chances are you'll both be sleeping more soundly in the nights to come.

*Names have been changed to protect sources' privacy.

Now that you're clearer on the answer to why do people sleepwalk, you may be craving deeper zzz's. If so, eat these snooze-inducing foods before bed and try this wait-listed Japanese sleep massage

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