Understand the Sleep Walker – Sleepwalking 101

Sleepwalking is most common in children aged between 4-8 years and they gradually grow out of the problem.  It sometimes happens in adults too, so if you’re the parent or partner of a sleepwalker, then this article is for you.

Sleepwalking is also called somnambulism.

sleepwalking, all about sleepwalking

What is sleep walking?

Sleepwalking is when a person walks or carries out other activities while he sleeps.  These activities can be simple and harmless, like walking round the house or just getting out of bed.  Or they can be potentially more dangerous, such as climbing out of windows, using knives, leaving the house or driving the car.

Sleepwalking doesn’t usually happen during naps.

It can happen rarely, often, once a night or multiple times during a night over several nights.

See also ‘What causes sleepwalking’ below.

What are the symptoms of sleep walking?

People who sleep walk often:

  • Have their eyes open but a blank look on their face
  • Are confused and disoriented when they wake up from a sleepwalking episode
  • Don’t remember anything about the episode when they wake up
  • Perform simple or complex activities during their sleep
  • May get up and go back to sleep in different place/bed
  • Talk during an episode but what they say doesn’t make any sense.

What tests will the doctor do for sleepwalking?

Usually the doctor won’t need to do any tests.  What the sleeper or sleeping partner tells the doctor will usually be enough to make a diagnosis.

Talk to your doctor if you/ the sleeper has other troubling symptoms, if the sleep walking is frequent or if the sleepwalker is performing dangerous activities while they sleepwalk.

If stress has played a part in triggering the sleepwalking, it may be beneficial to seek professional help for this.

The doctor may do some tests to rule out other sleep or health problems, but sleep walking is rarely a symptom of any other undiagnosed disease.

What is the treatment for sleepwalking?

Sleepwalking rarely needs treatment and will usually disappear on its own.

However the sleepwalker can help himself by:

  • Keeping a sleep journal
  • Note any other symptoms
  • Note any stressors or anxieties he has
  • Note the drugs he’s taking: prescribed, over the counter and recreational.

If you take this information with you when you see the doctor, along with any questions you want to ask, this will help the doctor make a diagnosis and point you in the right direction for resolving the problem.

sleep better with meditationHypnosis, meditation and other stress-relieving therapies may work well for your sleepwalking.

If you’re unsure about approaching a medical professional about what you might feel is an embarrassing problem, read this article from our sister site.

What causes sleepwalking?

When we sleep, we go through cycles of REM (Rapid Eye Movement) and non-REM sleep.  These are different types and stages of sleep.

Sleepwalking usually happens during deep non-REM sleep (during stages 3 or 4) early in the night.

If it happens during REM sleep, this is usually nearer the morning and may indicate a REM sleep disorder.

No one is really sure why we sleep walk and its exact cause in children, although it is thought to run in families.

In adults sleep walking happens because of:

  • tiredness, lack of sleep and/or stress
  • alcohol, sedative medication or other meds
  • alcohol withdrawal
  • some medical conditions such as partial complex seizures
  • some mental health disorders
  • brain trauma or stroke
  • degenerative nervous system problems such as MS, Parkinson’s Disease, CJD, Huntington’s Disease
  • low blood oxygen in some respiratory conditions
  • in older people it may occur as part of dementia.

Who sleepwalks?

Sleepwalking is most common in children aged 4-8 years but can happen in adults.

How can I prevent sleepwalking?

You can help to prevent sleepwalking by:

  • Avoid getting too tired.  Take naps during the day if you need to and avoid sleep debt as this can trigger a sleep walking episode.
  • Have a regular bedtime routine and make your bedroom a place for sleep.  Look at the other ‘better sleep’ advice on this site for more tips.
  • Avoid sleeping pills and alcohol if you are a sleepwalker.
  • Take active steps to reduce stress and anxiety as this can make things worse.

Misunderstandings about sleepwalking.

  • It is safe to wake a sleepwalker – he will come to no harm but may be disoriented and confused.
  • Sleepwalkers can come to harm during a sleepwalking episode and need to be protected from dangerous activities (see above).

Elspeth Raisbeck

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