Sleepwalking is among the most common sleep disorders. The thought of walking around without having any control over our body and actions seems scary, so it’s no surprise that many people are curious about this disorder, even if they’ve never experienced it. If your loved one is sleepwalking on a regular basis and you’ve found yourself wondering should you ever wake someone who is sleepwalking, our article will give you a detailed answer.
Apart from answering this common dilemma, we also included a brief overview of sleepwalking as a disorder, its symptoms and causes, and some tips on how to prevent injuries and treat the disorder.
Let’s first define what sleepwalking actually entails.
What Is Sleepwalking?
First things first, let’s start off by defining what sleepwalking is.
Sleepwalking, or somnambulism, is a sleeping disorder that’s characterised by walking and performing tasks while asleep. It mostly occurs during the transition from deep sleep to lighter sleep. If not between those stages of sleep, it can also occur during the process of waking up.
One study found that almost 30% of children suffer from sleepwalking and that it’s extremely likely for a child to suffer from sleepwalking if one of their parents also had it in their childhood.
With that said, sleepwalking isn’t only common in children – there are many adults who have it. There are several factors that can exasperate this sleep disorder, such as chronic stress, certain drugs, a lack of sleep, as well as certain medical conditions.
Now that we’ve defined what sleepwalking is and how common it is among children, let’s take a closer look at some of the symptoms.
Symptoms of Sleepwalking
The first and most obvious symptom of sleepwalking is the one we mentioned earlier – walking, talking, and even performing common tasks while being asleep. While many sleepwalkers talk, their words are incoherent and they don’t make much sense.
Some of the actions sleepwalkers tend to perform can be extremely dangerous depending on the situation, such as running or hanging around in potentially dangerous places, such as the balcony.
Most sleepwalkers walk around with open eyes and a glassy stare, which is one of the tell-tale signs that someone is sleepwalking. A common myth perpetuated in movies is that sleepwalkers walk around with their arms in front of them like a zombie, but that’s rarely the case. Sleepwalkers don’t remember their sleepwalking episodes and what occurred during them until a family member shares what they witnessed them do.
Causes of Sleepwalking
Just like many sleep disorders, sleepwalking has a list of potential causes, which we will explore below.
Many studies, such as the one we mentioned earlier, point to genetics as being a strong factor in determining whether children will sleepwalk or not. If one or both of your parents has sleepwalked at some point in their lives, chances are so will you.
Surprisingly, sleepwalking can be a side effect of some medications. These are usually medications that have a sedative effect, which causes people to spend a longer time in the deep stage of sleep, thus increasing the chances of sleepwalking during the night.
Another incredibly common cause of sleepwalking is chronic stress. When left untreated, chronic stress can disrupt our sleep quality and increase the chances of sleepwalking. It’s important to find healthy coping mechanisms, especially if you’re someone who is prone to sleep disorders.
Some Sleep Disorders
There are also certain sleep disorders that can result in sleepwalking, such as Restless Leg Syndrome and sleep apnea.
Alcohol is known to have a negative impact on our overall sleep quality, so it won’t come as a surprise to learn that it can also be the cause of sleepwalking, especially if it’s consumed near bedtime.
At What Stage of Sleep Does Sleepwalking Occur?
Another important thing to know regarding sleepwalking is at exactly what stage during sleep it occurs.
As you may know, the stages of sleep fall under two main categories: non-REM and REM stages of sleep. Sleepwalking occurs mostly during the non-REM stages of sleep, early in the night. This is when sleepwalkers are most prone to experiencing an episode of sleepwalking, and the chances of it occurring at the later stage of sleep are significantly lower.
Most sleepwalking episodes tend to last around 10 minutes, but some sleepwalkers experience longer episodes.
Now let’s get to the gist of our article and answer the following question: is it dangerous to wake up a sleepwalker?
Should You Wake Up Sleepwalkers?
If you’ve ever witnessed one of your family members sleepwalk, the dilemma of whether or not you should wake them up is more than familiar to you. Seeing someone sleepwalk can be a scary sight, especially if you think they might get themselves in dangerous situations. So, will you hurt them if you decide to forcefully wake them up?
The short answer is – no. Despite how it’s portrayed in media and movies, waking up someone who is sleepwalking doesn’t have dire consequences on their health, such as posing them a risk of having a panic attack, a heart attack, or anything in between. They’re most likely not going to be traumatised by the event.
With that said, most doctors don’t recommend waking up sleepwalkers. This is not because it could be a health risk for them, but merely because it would lead to a lot of confusion and disorientation on their part, which is the last thing you’d want in a sleepwalker. Additionally, some sleepwalkers can be aggressive initially, so you should also take that into account.
How Not to Wake Up a Sleepwalker
To determine whether or not you should wake up a sleepwalker, it’s important that you weigh out the risks of them continuing to walk around in the state and the risks of you waking them up. Chances are, the former might result in bigger health hazards than the latter, so more often than not, waking them up is the right decision. Here’s how you shouldn’t go about waking up someone who is sleepwalking.
If you see someone who is sleepwalking, refrain from shouting at them or grabbing them forcefully. If they wake up in this state, they might become aggressive and they’ll be even more confused, so that’s something you’ll want to avoid.
If you absolutely must wake up someone who is sleepwalking to prevent them from hurting themselves, the way to go about doing that is by making a loud noise, such as slamming the door. Avoid touching them or being too forceful, since there’s a high chance they become distressed as a result.
The best alternative to waking someone up from sleepwalking is to gently guide them back to their bed without being forceful. If this is not a possibility and they start resisting, keep them company and ensure that they’re not doing any dangerous tasks for the time being.
How to Prevent Injury If Your Child Is Sleepwalking
As we already know by now, sleepwalking is most common in children. While for most it goes away on its own, there’s always a chance of them hurting themselves during one of their episodes. To avoid having to wake up your child out of fear of them hurting themselves, the best thing to do is make a few tweaks in your home to minimise the chances of them hurting themselves.
Discourage Them From Sleeping on a Top Bunk
If there’s a bunk bed in your bedroom, it’d be a good idea to discourage them from sleeping on the top. Even if there are safety rails, there’s always a chance they might slip and injure themselves. Plus, it’d put you in a more relaxed state of mind knowing your child isn’t sleeping very high up.
Lock Your Door and Windows
The next precaution you should ideally make is closing all your doors and windows to prevent your child from going out of the house. Most sleepwalking accidents occur outdoors, and the best way to prevent them from going outside is by ensuring that every door and window is locked when you go to bed. Moreover, ensure that doors to certain rooms of the house also remain closed, such as your storage room where there might be products stacked on high shelves and the balcony.
Remove Sharp and Dangerous Objects from Their Bedroom
Another important step in preventing injuries is removing any dangerous objects from the bedroom that could lead to an injury. Your child might accidentally drop them on the ground or step on them, so it’s wise to keep them out of sight.
The same applies to certain objects which might not be located in their bedroom, such as knives. Putting them in a childproof drawer or in a locked drawer is your best bet.
Set Up an Alarm
If you’re very worried about potential injuries, you might want to set up some kind of alarm that will signal to you that your child has left their bedroom, such as attaching a bell to their door. While this might sound extreme, it’d put you at ease knowing you’ll likely hear when they’re going through an episode.
Make Sure They Fall Asleep in a Clean Bedroom
A messy, cluttered floor is a potential safety hazard. Your child might step on their toys or trip over them, so encourage them to build a habit of going to bed with a clean room and removing any clutter from the floors.
Tips for Preventing Sleepwalking Episodes
In the section that follows, we will share some of our best tips for both children and adults about how to prevent sleepwalking episodes, thus minimising the chances of injuries or any long-term problems.
Work on Your Sleep Hygiene
Since sleepwalking is often a symptom of poor sleep hygiene, it comes as no surprise that working on your sleeping schedule can significantly decrease the frequency of your sleepwalking episodes. This includes going to bed and waking up at the same time, avoiding naps that could lead to you tossing and turning at night without being able to fall asleep, or staying up late at night.
Avoid Stimulants Before Bed
In line with our first tip, you should avoid consuming any stimulants that can keep you up at night, such as alcohol and caffeine. Alcohol is a common cause of low-quality sleep and it often causes us to wake up in the middle of the night, which reduces our overall sleep quality. Drinking coffee in the late afternoon or evening can cause us to stay up at night since caffeine remains in our system for many hours after we consume it. It’s best to stick to one glass of alcohol if you decide to treat yourself to a glass of wine at the end of the day and drink your last cup of coffee before lunch if you don’t have a very high tolerance for caffeine.
Ensure That Your Sleeping Environment Promotes Healthy Sleep
To enjoy all the benefits of deep sleep, we need to optimise our sleeping environment. This includes turning off every light in the room, setting the room temperature just right, and turning off any noise. If you’re someone who likes to fall asleep to their favourite TV show or podcast, it might be a hard change at first, but the quality sleep you’ll get as a result is certainly worth it.
Relax Before Bed
Last but not least, we encourage you to include some relaxing activities in your bedtime routine. Chronic stress is a common cause of sleepwalking among adults, so finding healthy ways to cope with stress is crucial in preventing sleepwalking episodes. Some activities you could include in your bedtime routine include journaling, doing yoga, and reading.
Wake Up Your Child
One useful tip to know if your child struggles with sleepwalking is to wake them up around half an hour before they usually sleepwalk, assuming they do it at the same time every day. This is an easy way to reset their sleep cycle and prevent them from sleepwalking.
Is There a Treatment for Sleepwalking?
Unfortunately, there’s no official treatment for sleepwalking. The good news is that it’s not quite necessary since most sleepwalkers usually grow out of it at a certain age. As we discussed earlier, sleepwalking can also be a symptom of stress or poor sleep hygiene, so working on those issues could be an indirect treatment for sleepwalking. Work on your habits and you might notice significant improvement over time.
When to See a Doctor
If you’re an adult who’s struggling with sleepwalking and it’s disrupting your quality of life, it might be time to pay a visit to your doctor.
Your doctor is going to ask you about the symptoms you’re experiencing, the frequency of your sleepwalking episodes, any medication you might be taking, and your medical history. Additionally, they might need to do some tests to determine the exact cause of your sleepwalking, such as a physical exam.
Depending on the cause of your sleepwalking, your doctor will proceed to give you some tips to deal with your sleepwalking or even prescribe medication.
Is It Bad to Wake Someone Up While Sleepwalking?
The belief that waking someone up from sleepwalking could result in serious health problems such as a heart attack is a myth. However, if you use forceful means to wake up someone who is sleepwalking, you risk distressing them and disorienting them, so the best thing to do is gently lead them back to bed or monitor them to make sure they’re not getting themselves in dangerous situations.
What Causes Sleepwalking?
Some common causes of sleepwalking include some sleep disorders, chronic stress, and some medications.
How to Tell If Someone Is Sleepwalking?
Apart from the most obvious symptom of sleepwalking – walking around and performing tasks while asleep – a common tell-tale sign of someone who is sleepwalking is having their eyes open and having a glassy stare.
We hope our article helped you understand the intricacies of sleepwalking and gave you some insight on how to deal with a family member who is going through a sleepwalking episode.
Many things can be a cause of sleepwalking, such as genetics, stress, certain sleep disorders, and some medication. While it’s not recommended that you go out of your way to wake up someone who is sleepwalking, it’s a common myth that doing so could result in some health concerns such as having a heart attack. The worst thing that could happen is for them to become confused and disoriented, which is why gently guiding them back to their bed is the best course of action if you want to help someone who is sleepwalking.
If your child is sleepwalking, there are a few steps you could take to prevent injuries, such as removing sharp and potentially harmful objects from their bedroom, locking the doors and windows, and keeping the floor clear.
Petit D, Pennestri MH, Paquet J, Desautels A, Zadra A, Vitaro F, Tremblay RE, Boivin M, Montplaisir J. Childhood Sleepwalking and Sleep Terrors: A Longitudinal Study of Prevalence and Familial Aggregation. JAMA Pediatr. 2015 Jul;169(7):653-8. doi: 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2015.127. PMID: 25938617.