The science behind sleepwalking

What is sleepwalking, why do we do it and how can it be prevented?

Sleepwalking is without a doubt one of the most unusual and intriguing phenomena surrounding sleep. Known officially as somnambulism, sleepwalking is actually a behavioural disorder which manifests itself during deep sleep. It can result in a variety of unconscious behaviours from the sleeper, of which walking is just one. Due to the activity mostly occurring during deep sleep, the sleeper may be hard to wake and will probably have no recollection of the incident.

Somnambulism is much more common in children than adults and is also more common when sleep deprived. Many people who suffer from sleepwalking in childhood grow out of the condition, but for others it can persist. The number of sleepwalkers within the general population is between 1-15%. Sleepwalking can even manifest in adulthood.

The causes of sleepwalking

There is no single cause of sleepwalking, but there are several factors which can make the onset of somnambulism more common. In adults, common triggers for sleepwalking can include sleep deprivation, febrile illnesses, certain mediations and sedative agents. This includes alcohol. Despite common misconceptions, sleepwalking is not associated with any underlying psychological or psychiatric disorders.

In children, sleepwalking is more common between the ages of 3 and 7. It is also more common in children with sleep apnoea and among children who regularly wet the bed. Sleep terrors are also thought to be related to sleepwalking.

The symptoms of sleepwalking

Sleepwalking most often occurs in deep sleep, though it can occasionally manifest in the lighter stages of NREM sleep. Walking is obviously one of the most common symptoms of the disorder, but behaviours can range from sitting up in bed to walking from room to room to even leaving the house or driving long distances. Those experiencing an episode of somnambulism may also talk in their sleep, scream, become violent or perform inappropriate behaviour like urinating in places other than the toilet.

Treatment for sleepwalking

It is a common misconception that you shouldn’t wake a sleepwalking person. In reality, it can be dangerous not to wake them due to the way behaviours can escalate.

Unfortunately, there is no established treatment for sleepwalking. Instead, it is usually a matter of improving your overall sleep health. You should also pay a visit to your GP to discuss the possibility of an underlying condition, considering topics such as fatigue, medication and stress.

In most children, sleepwalking does dissipate over time as the child grows out of it. If your child’s symptoms persist into young adulthood, evaluate their sleep patterns and consider a visit to the GP.

Coping with sleepwalking

In the event of a sleepwalking episode, it’s comforting to know that your child’s (or your own) bedroom is a safe environment. For example, removing sharp or breakable objects from the room and installing gates on the stairway can help provide piece of mind. You should also avoid allowing your child to sleep in a bunkbed.

As stated earlier, sleep deprivation often plays a central role in the onset of sleepwalking. As such, increasing the amount of good quality sleep you’re getting is vital. Set yourself a dedicated bedtime and waking time and try to stick to it every day. Avoid electronics and bright screens for around an hour before bed and keep your bedroom comfortably cool.

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