Sleepwalking is fascinating and surprisingly common; about 15% of children aged 5 to 12 years experience at least one episode of sleepwalking. A person will likely not even know that they are a sleepwalker unless they injure themselves during an episode or a family member or roommate alerts them to their nocturnal wanderings.
Sleepwalking typically occurs during deep, slow-wave sleep. This is the portion of slumber when dreams are less common. Dreaming doesn't happen during sleepwalking and, in fact, the brain activity is more similar to that of an awake person than of a sleeping person.
Young children tend to sleepwalk more than adults, and tend to outgrow it. Sleepwalking tends to run in families. In children, anxiety or poor sleep habits usually trigger sleepwalking. Similarly, sleep deprivation or too much stress or anxiety can push adults out of bed and into sleepwalking situations.
With their eyes open but their reasoning mind asleep, a sleepwalker may find themselves in dangerous circumstances. While a few sleepwalkers may behave violently during their episodes or do uncharacteristic things, there's no truth to the myth that waking a sleepwalker will kill them. They'll simply be startled, disoriented, and have no memory of what they've just experienced. If you encounter a sleepwalker, gently lead them back to bed by the elbow, allowing them to remain asleep if possible.
If you or someone you live with is a nighttime nomad:
- Avoid triggers, like fatigue, stress, or certain substances like alcohol, medications, or drugs.
- Set up safety measures – gates to block stairwells, reinforced locks on doors and windows, buffers on sharp corners or edges. Bunk beds are, of course, a bad idea if a child sleepwalks.
- Talk to your doctor about treatment options should sleepwalking become troublesome or dangerous. In some cases, an underlying medical problem could be to be blame. Prescription medications or hypnosis have been effective for some.
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