Have you ever wondered what causes sleepwalking? Perhaps you often experience sleep problems and are a regular sleepwalker or you have a child who sleepwalks? We asked Dr Chris Idzikowski, director of the Edinburgh Sleep Centre for his expert view.
What is sleepwalking?
Just as the name suggests sleepwalking is walking or getting up and moving about when you’re asleep. Dr Chris says: ‘Sleepwalking is a general term that involves doing things, like walking and eating, in our sleep. Sleepwalkers aren’t aware of what they are doing.’
What do people look like when they sleepwalk?
It’s not like the movies where people who sleepwalk look like zombies, with their arms outstretched! People who sleepwalk may look pale, with glassy eyes and they may appear dazed and clumsy.
‘We don’t really know what causes it. One theory is that in children the brain has not yet learned that it’s best not to walk when in sleep mode,’ says Dr Chris.
Other possible causes are:
Here are some of the common questions Dr. Chris is asked
Who is prone to sleepwalking?
‘It’s mainly young kids who sleepwalk,’ says Dr Chris. ‘There’s a lot of evidence that suggests certain types of people are more prone to sleepwalking,’ so it can run in the family.
The prime age for sleepwalking is between the ages of 4 and 10, but some people start in their teens and carry on through adulthood, ‘About 2% of adults continue to sleepwalk,’ says Dr Chris.
If you wake a sleepwalker, will they die?
It’s very unlikely that you’ll harm someone if you wake them when they’re sleepwalking.
‘But it’s safer to tell them to go back to bed. People who are sleepwalking are in deep sleep, so waking them causes a temporary condition called “sleep drunkenness” where people are disorientated. In children it may cause distress,’ says Dr Chris.
So guide them back to bed and if they do wake up reassure them that everything is ok.
If you sleepwalk will you sleeptalk too?
‘You may, but not necessarily,’ says Dr Chris. ‘Sleepwalking often happens during deep sleep, whereas sleeptalking occurs in light sleep.’
Sleeptalking is not very coherent. The person might mumble or say random words or phrases, and are unlikely to give away any secrets – so if your man mentions another woman’s name in his sleep, it doesn’t mean he’s having an affair!
Like sleepwalking, people rarely remember that they were talking in their sleep.
What are the dangers of sleepwalking?
‘People who are sleepwalking might put themselves or others in danger without realising it,’ says Dr Chris.
It’s difficult to pinpoint one specific thing that’s dangerous about sleepwalking, but you need to be aware that stairs, sharp objects or opening the front door and walking into the road are dangers for a sleepwalker.
Banging into things or drinking something harmful are dangers too as the person cannot see where they’re going or what they’re doing.
Someone who sleepwalks might put other people in danger without realising it, such as turning on the gas or starting a fire accidentally.
Do people know they are sleepwalking?
No, they’re still asleep and unaware that they’re out of bed. They’re also unlikely to know for certain that they went sleepwalking the night before, although they might guess.
Do sleepwalkers need more sleep?
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If they’ve had a very disturbed night they might feel more tired than usual, but ‘it’s unlikely that they’ll need more sleep,’ says Dr Chris.
How do you know when sleepwalking is serious?
In most cases sleepwalking isn’t serious and doesn’t need the help of a professional. However if the person is frequently sleepwalking, becoming violent when sleepwalking, harming themselves or others, then it’s a good idea to speak to your GP or a sleep specialist, like Dr Chris.