Preventing Sleepwalking: Scientific Findings to Help Stop a Chronic Sleepwalker

Preventing Sleepwalking: Scientific Findings to Help Stop a Chronic Sleepwalker

In the movies, sleepwalking might be something that’s reserved mostly for zombies. But in real life, it affects kids and adults of all ages—and it’s more common than you think.

What’s more? Despite the whole creepy, walking dead image, most people who sleepwalk are perfectly healthy. Most often, the disorder—formally called somnambulism—is the result of too little sleep, too much stress, or the unpleasant combo of both.

Still, sleepwalking can be unnerving for family members, not to mention potentially dangerous for the people who are actually in the throes of it. So how can you stop a sleepwalker in her tracks—and lower the likelihood that she’ll do it again in the future?

Here is everything you need to know about why sleepwalking occurs, plus the many ways that can help you put a stop to these strange nighttime episodes.

Why People Sleepwalk

In movies or TV shows, sleepwalking is often portrayed as something that crazy people (or worse—zombies!) do. But in real life, that’s hardly accurate. Weirdly, the most common cause of sleepwalking is poor sleep or an erratic sleep schedule. Stress, being sick, and some underlying conditions that often affect sleep can also play a role.

In kids, sleepwalking is often brought on by symptoms caused by a change in routine. These can include:

  • Feeling overtired or not getting enough sleep
  • Having an irregular sleep schedule
  • Noisy/different sleep environment
  • Fever or illness
  • Stress
  • Certain medications (like stimulants or antihistamines)
  • Going to sleep with a full bladder

Those same issues can often lead to sleepwalking in adults, too. But often, sleepwalking can be triggered by an underlying condition that interferes with quality sleep, like:

  • Sleep-disordered breathing, like sleep apnea
  • Narcolepsy
  • Restless leg syndrome
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • Migraines
  • Hyperthyroidism
  • Head injuries
  • Stroke
  • Travel

How Common is Sleepwalking?

Kids are considerably more likely to sleepwalk than adults. In fact, much to the fright and confusion of their parents, sleepwalking is considered to be a fairly normal part of child development. In all, it affects close to 20% of kids—many of them in the eight to twelve-year-old range, estimates the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.

But not all youngsters are at equal risk: Unsurprisingly, children whose parents sleepwalk are more likely to also sleepwalk themselves. Still, most junior sleepwalkers tend to outgrow the habit by the time they’re teenagers, experts say.

Roughly 4% of adults experience sleepwalking at some point or another

Still, the phenomenon doesn’t just affect the playground set: Roughly 4% of adults experience sleepwalking at some point or another, say experts writing in the Annals of Neurology. But while childhood sleepwalking can be a normal part of growing up, adults who sleepwalk may be more likely to have an underlying condition.

When Does Sleepwalking Strike?

Every sleepwalker has his or her own unique patterns and eccentricities. But usually, sleepwalking occurs within an hour or two of falling asleep.

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A normal sleep cycle starts out with a person feeling drowsy and moving all the way to deep sleep. Sleepwalking usually occurs during sleep stages 3 or 4, when a person is in deep sleep. Contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t usually occur during REM sleep, the stage of sleep when people have vivid dreams. (And, FYI, it has nothing to do with nightmares.)

Sleepwalking episodes can vary in length, too. While some only last for 30 seconds or so, others can go as long as 30 minutes.

Typical Sleepwalking Behaviors

By definition, sleepwalkers are prone to walking in their sleep. But that’s not the only thing they’ll do. In addition to their meandering midnight strolls, sleepwalkers—who never remember their nighttime jaunts—may also:

  • Talk in their sleep
  • Sit up in bed and perform repeated motions, like rubbing their eyes
  • Do strange or uncharacteristic things, like urinating in a closet
  • Screaming

It’s also not uncommon for sleepwalkers to wander into the kitchen and start snacking. In fact, sleepwalking is closely linked to sleepeating, a separate disorder that causes people to eat or drink several times throughout the night during sleep hours.

Like sleepwalkers, sleepeaters often have no memory of their behavior once they wake up in the morning. Unsurprisingly, it can lead to unintended weight gain, but that’s not all. According to the American Sleep Association, sleepeaters could be at risk for getting injured or poisoned, since they might try to eat or drink non-food items like cigarettes or cleaning fluids.

Is Sleepwalking Harmful?

As long as it isn’t caused by an underlying medical condition (more on that below), sleepwalking in itself isn’t harmful. But a sleepwalker who is unaware of her surroundings could be at risk for getting hurt or hurting others.

Even though sleepwalkers have no idea what they’re doing (they’re asleep, after all!), their behavior can sometimes turn dangerous. In fact, one study published in the Annals of Neurology suggests that sleepwalking is a leading cause of sleep-related self-injury. Sometimes, sleepwalkers can stroll out of the house, climb out of windows, or even hop into the car and start driving.

The study also found that sleepwalking is a top cause of sleep-related violence. In part, that’s because trying to wake a person who’s sleepwalking can cause them to become dazed, disoriented, or even antagonistic.

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Protecting a Sleepwalker

Because they’re wandering around unconscious, sleepwalkers run the risk of accidentally harming themselves or even harming others. Which is why if you or a family member is prone to sleepwalking, it’s important to take safety precautions before turning in for the night.

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Here’s what experts recommend to keep a sleepwalker safe:

  • Set up an impromptu alarm. Attach a bell to the sleepwalker’s bedroom door that will jingle if they open it. It might not wake them up, but it’ll probably wake you up—so you can help get them back to bed sooner.
  • Keep windows and doors locked and bolted. Anything that makes it harder for sleepwalker to get outside is a good thing.
  • Keep dangerous objects out of reach. Put sharp objects like knives or scissors deep inside of cabinets or drawers instead of sitting out on the counter.
  • Remove clutter from the floors. Shoes, toys, and other items that typically end up on the floor are tripping hazards for sleepwalkers.
  • Hang onto the car keys. If you think your sleepwalker might try to drive away, keep the car keys in a secure spot so they can’t take them.
  • Take extra precautions for kids. If your child is prone to sleepwalking, don’t let them sleep in a bunk bed, where they’re more likely to fall and hurt themselves. If she sleeps upstairs, install a baby gate at the top of the steps to keep her from falling down.

The most important thing of all to remember? Don’t try to wake a sleepwalker. Though it’s tempting to do so, trying to rouse a sleepwalker could startle them or cause them to lash out—resulting in someone getting injured. (But contrary to popular myth, waking a sleepwalker isn’t going to give them a heart attack.)

Still, that doesn’t mean that when you catch a family member sleepwalking, you should let them continue on their merry way. Instead, gently turn them around and guide them back to bed with calm, reassuring statements like, “You’re safe, and you’re going back to bed.” If they’re stubborn and won’t budge, sit with them and keep them out of harm’s way until they decide to head back to bed on their own.

And if you absolutely need to wake them up? Stand back and make a loud noise like blowing on a whistle or banging a pot or pan. If you try shaking or touching them, you could end up getting hit or hurt when they wake up.

Natural Ways to Prevent Sleepwalking: Your First Defenses

Sometimes, sleepwalking occurs as an isolated incident—a weird but harmless one-night event that makes for a funny story during breakfast the next morning. But if you or a family member starts to sleepwalk on a regular basis, it’s important to talk with your doctor to rule out any underlying causes—and figure out a solution.

There are plenty of prescription medication options for managing a case of sleepwalking that just won’t quit. But if you’re like most, you probably want to try combatting the problem without popping a pill, which could be habit-forming and come with some unwanted side effects.

So what sorts of non-drug ways can you try to tackle sleepwalking? Here is a look at some of the first-line defenses that can help to improve the quality of your sleep and reduce your odds for sleepwalking.

Keep an eye out for patterns. You might not realize it, but certain things might be bringing on your sleepwalking. Whenever an episode strikes, have a family member keep note of the date, the sleepwalking duration, and what you did while sleepwalking.

Over time, you might uncover a pattern that shows that certain things are triggering the problem. Maybe you sleepwalk on nights after you ate a heavy meal or drank more alcohol than usual, or maybe sleepwalking strikes when you’re dealing with loads of stress at work. Either way, once you have an idea of what might be causing the sleepwalking, it’ll be easier to preempt it from happening next time.

Get more quality sleep. Sleepwalking often rears its head in the face of fatigue and sleep deprivation—which means that your first defense for dealing with it is more sleep time. If you aren’t already regularly logging seven to eight hours of shuteye per night, make it a priority to start.

Build a sleep-friendly bedtime routine. When it comes to quality sleep, routine is key. As things start to wind down in the evening, make an effort to create regular patterns that signal to your brain that it’s almost time to shut down for the night. Start dimming the lights, put away your smartphone or tablet in favor of a book, take a warm bath or shower, or try a few minutes of stretching or meditation.

Practice other good sleep hygiene techniques. Incorporate other tactics to ensure that you regularly get the quality sleep that your body needs to help reduce the likelihood of sleepwalking. These can include:

  • Keep your bedroom quiet, dark, and cool. Block outside lights with dark shades or curtains, and keep your bedroom temperature at around 65 degrees. If you live somewhere noisy, use a white noise machine or wear earplugs.
  • Stick to a regular schedule. Go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day.
  • Cap your naps. Go ahead and take a midday siesta if you’re feeling lethargic. But don’t snooze for more than 30 minutes and avoid napping after 3 P.M. to avoid messing up your sleep at night.
  • Steer clear of screens. The blue light emitted from your smartphone, tablet, or computer leaves your brain feeling energized, making it harder to fall asleep. Power down at least an hour before bed.
  • Limit alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine. Alcohol might make you feel tired at first, but it can lead to disrupted sleep later in the evening. And caffeine and nicotine are both stimulants, so lay off the coffee after late afternoon. If you haven’t quit smoking, limit cigarettes in the evening.

Get more exercise. People who exercise tend to snooze better than those who eschew regular workouts. Studies show that sweat sessions can improve sleep quality and give you more energy throughout the day. And don’t worry if you only have time to workout in the evening—research suggests that for most people, nighttime exercise doesn’t interfere with sleep.

Have sex (really). It’s not just the physical act that could leave you feeling more tired. After sex, men’s bodies produce higher levels of the hormone prolactin, which is associated with sleep. But experiencing an orgasm also gives men and women a boost of oxytocin, the so-called love hormone that can help you nod off.

Take steps to cope with stress. For some people, stress and anxiety during the daytime can lead to sleepwalking at night. (The body works in strange ways, doesn’t it?) In fact, anxiety and depression are two of the most common causes of insomnia—and by extension, sleepwalking. By taking steps to manage your stress—think journaling, yoga or meditation, or even just talking to a friend—you can deal with issues that are bugging you while you’re awake so they’re less likely to invade (and disrupt) your sleep.

Review medications with your doctor. Certain drugs can mess with your ability to get a solid night’s sleep—and in turn, up your likelihood for sleepwalking. These can include antidepressants, cold and flu meds that contain alcohol, pain relievers that contain caffeine, diuretics, corticosteroids, thyroid hormones, and medications for high blood pressure. If you regularly take one of these medications and find that sleepwalking is becoming an issue, talk with your doctor about whether there are other options that might make it easier to sleep.

Natural Ways to Prevent Sleepwalking: When the Basics Don’t Work

You’ve tried to get more quality sleep by upping your sleep hygiene, building a better bedtime routine, and dealing with stress. And yet, your partner or roommate is still finding you wandering around in the middle of the night, completely oblivious to the weirdness that is going on.

Happily, there are other natural tools you can turn to that could help ease your sleep troubles and make your sleepwalking a thing of the past. Here are more drug-free remedies that are worth trying:

Explore the power of smell. The right scent could be just the thing you need to sleep more soundly. Essential oils like lavender, spikenard, vetiver, frankincense, myyrh, and clary sage are thought to ease anxiety and promote relaxation, helping you drift off to dreamland sooner. Try placing a few drops on a tissue, holding it close to your nose, and taking several deep breaths.

Get more calcium and magnesium. Plenty of us fail to get of the minerals calcium and magnesium, and being deficient can negatively affect your sleep. You can get more calcium by loading up on milk, yogurt, cheese, leafy greens, or fortified nondairy milk; and up your magnesium intake with foods like nuts, seeds, beans, and whole grains. Or, if you have a hard time getting enough of the minerals through food alone, talk to your doc about supplements.

Or, load up on omega-3s. If you’re not a regular fish-eater, you could be running low the essential omega-3 fatty acids that research published in the Journal of Sleep Research suggests might make sleep easier to come by. Work a few servings of wild salmon or tuna into your diet each week, or consider popping a supplement. Just 600mg daily might be enough to help you drift off to dreamland minus the disturbances.

Try tryptophan-rich foods. That ginormous meal isn’t the only reason that you feel like conking out on the couch after Thanksgiving dinner. Turkey is rich in tryptophan, an amino acid that the body uses to produce the neurotransmitter serotonin. Your body needs serotonin to feel sleepy, and eating more tryptophan-heavy foods at dinner or as a pre-bedtime snack could help bring on that tired feeling. And turkey’s just one option: Quinoa, nuts, seeds, tofu, cheese, chicken, fish, oats, beans, lentils, and eggs all pack plenty of the stuff, too.

Sip a sleep-promoting tea. For centuries, people have turned to relaxation-promoting herbal teas to help them fall asleep easier and stay asleep longer. A few to consider adding to your bedtime routine:

  • Chamomile. The sweet, daisy-like flower promotes feelings of calm that can help ease anxiety and insomnia. Before bed, steep a teaspoon of chamomile leaves in boiling water for 10 minutes (sweeten it with a little honey, if you’d like) and sip your way to sleepiness. Or, add a few drops of chamomile essential oil to a hot bath or shower.
  • Passion flower. The tropical flower acts as a mild sedative—and, bonus!, it tastes delicious. Try steeping a teaspoon of passion flower in boiling water for 10 minutes before drinking.
  • Valerian. Herbalists often rely on the root’s sedative properties to treat insomnia, restlessness, and nervousness. It’s known for helping people fall asleep faster and wake less often throughout the night. Like chamomile and passion flower, you can steep valerian root to make a soothing herbal tea.
  • California poppy. The bright orange flower is known to ease anxiety, promote relaxation, and leave you with a feeling of general lethargy. In other words, its perfect for right before bed. Steep the dried leaves for 10 minutes or so before drinking.
  • St. John’s wort. The yellow, weed-like flower is commonly used to depression symptoms like anxiety and insomnia. You can steep it to make a tea, but take note: St. John’s wort can make your skin more sensitive to the UV rays, so avoid direct sunlight while taking it.

Consider hypnosis. Sure, it might sound a little woo-woo. But some research suggests that hypnosis—which helps promote feelings of comfort and relaxation that can lead to more restful sleep—really can help curb sleepwalking. One small study, published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, found that sleepwalkers who underwent hypnotherapy were 42% more likely to be episode-free after 18 months and 40% more likely to be episode-free after 5 years.

Experiment with biofeedback. Your heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension all play a role in your ability to fall asleep. But by using biofeedback treatment to develop a greater awareness of how stress affects those processes, you can learn how to control them in a way that leaves you feeling more relaxed and primed for sleep. Usually, biofeedback sessions are performed under the guidance of a trained psychologist, so talk with your doctor to determine if the treatment is the right fit for you.

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Medical Treatments for Sleepwalking

Sometimes, sleepwalking can be managed by simple lifestyle changes or other natural remedies. But if a sleepwalker is at risk for getting hurt, is becoming disruptive to your family, is or experiencing extreme daytime sleepiness, sleeping medications can help get the problem under control—and help everyone get a better night’s rest.

To treat sleepwalking, your doctor might prescribe sleeping meds like:

  • Prosom: A sedative that helps users fall asleep faster, stay asleep longer, and wake less frequently during the night.
  • Klonopin: An anticonvulsant used that calms the brain and nerves to treat seizures and panic attacks. By decreasing the amount of electrical activity in the brain, Klonopin could help reduce sleepwalking frequency.
  • Trazodone: An antidepressant that works by increasing levels of serotonin in the brain, it’s used to treat depression, anxiety, and related sleep disorders.

All of these medications can be helpful in reducing the frequency and severity of sleepwalking episodes, and your doctor will determine which one is best for you. Still, they each come with side effects and aren’t meant for long-term use.

Sometimes, sleepwalking can be the result of underlying conditions, like acid reflux, obstructive sleep apnea, or restless leg syndrome. If your doctor determines that your sleepwalking is caused by one of these issues, she may prescribe treatment that can help solve the underlying problem—and in turn, reduce your likelihood for sleepwalking.

The Bottom Line on Sleepwalking

Sleepwalking in itself isn’t harmful. But does put people at risk for getting hurt accidentally, and can sometimes be caused by underlying health conditions that can affect your sleep.

If you or a family member sleepwalks once or twice, it probably isn’t a big deal. But if sleepwalking becomes a regular thing, consider bringing it up with your doctor. While there’s no formal diagnosis for sleepwalking itself, he or she may want to run tests to look for hidden conditions.

And whether he finds an underlying cause or not, know that sleepwalking is highly treatable. By making smart changes to your sleep routine, experimenting with other natural remedies, or even taking a prescription medication, with the right tools, you can start managing the weird nighttime phenomenon—and get the rest you crave.

Have you experienced sleepwalking—and found a way to stop it?

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Marygrace Taylor

Marygrace Taylor is an award-winning health writer for Amerisleep. Somehow, she manages to get eight hours of sleep almost every night.