Illustration of sleepwalking disorder. Source:
Illustration of sleepwalking disorder. Source:

We all probably have heard stories about sleepwalking, but what exactly is it and why is it occurring? Sleepwalking is also known as Somnambulism and is characterized by behaviour performed during sleep such as standing, sitting up or walking while sleeping. Sleepwalkers typically have no recognition of the event and when they are encountered in the act, it is difficult to wake them up. This is because the sleepwalker usually remains in deep sleep throughout the sleepwalking event.

Sleepwalking is generally more common in children.  Based on statistic, about 70% of children sleepwalked and the majority of them get over it when by the age of 15. However, there is still small proportion of people (about 4%) who persisted throughout adult life.

Sleepwalking disorder is known to have a strong hereditary component where almost 50% of sleepwalkers have reported history of sleepwalking behaviour in their family. It can also occur in people who are not normally a sleepwalker where the sleepwalking behaviour is triggered by external factors such as drug, medication and alcohol. For instance, anti-anxiety, anti-psychotic or anti-seizure medication has been known to be able to induce sleepwalking in patients. Stress, fatigue and tiredness from both psychological and physiological sources are also factors that cause sleepwalking disorder.

There are five different stages of sleep with the 4 stage being a part of the non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep. Sleepwalking behaviour occurs mainly after 3 hours of sleep because it is which is during stages 3 and 4. This is why sleepwalking tends not to occur during naps.

During the initial stage of the NREM sleep, our brain transition from wakefulness to light sleep is characterized by shift in brain waves that indicates a decrease in brain activity. As the transition reach to the third stage of the NREM, our brain began to fall into a deep sleep episode. After the fourth stage, the transition to realm sleep and during this period, our brain activity goes up and dreaming occurs. Although our brain is more active during this stage, our body motor pathway are inhibited which causes temporary paralysis of the skeletal muscle and hence cause no body movement. However, contradict to sleepwalking patients; although they are unconscious during sleep, the brain still has the access to the same motor system that we used in our daily life resulting in movement during sleeping. The movement can range from simple action such as sitting or up to more complex actions. It has been shown that patients with sleepwalking disorder have an abnormality in their sleep wave regulation during NREM sleep where they have rapid brain activities as compared to non-sleep walkers.

Many cases of sleepwalking had been reported for years and some of them are even extreme. For instance, recently in the US, a man undiagnosed sleepwalking nearly killed himself while he sleepwalked and almost fall into the 60 feet cliff. On the other case in Norway, a four year old girl was found in the nearby town alone after sleepwalking from her home which is four kilometres away from the town.

Although treatment such as sedative and hypnotize has been used to treat the symptoms of sleepwalking, there is no definitive cure. However, there are ways to reduce it occurrences or it impacts. For instance, for adults who are sleepwalkers, healthy lifestyle practice and healthy diet could help to reduce sleepwalking behaviour as it helps to reduce the stress levels and also reduce consumption to alcohol and drugs. Lock your room’s windows and doors before you sleep would be one of the best options to reduce the impacts of your sleepwalking action.

Does anyone ever experienced sleepwalking throughout their life or know someone closer who is a sleepwalker? I am keen to know how they encountered it.

6 Responses to “Sleepwalking”

  1. rajar says:

    Hi Asher Trama,

    Thank you for the comment. 🙂 Yes, talking is a part of sleepwalking behavior. I am not sure whether it is possible or not to have NREM sleep earlier than normal pattern. From my readings, I have not find any literature discussing about it. I’m sorry because I couldn’t help to answer that for you.

  2. rajar says:

    Hi ebyers,

    Thank you so much for your advice. I really appreciate that and will use your advice to improve my writing! 🙂

    And thank you for sharing your experiences too! From what I know, sleepwalking is not just determined by the act of walking. Talking, sitting, or laughing while sleeping can also be considered as sleepwalking behavior. I reckoned your sleepwalking symptom now is lesser than when you were kids because you only had sleep-talking and that is good. I think sleep-talking is more common especially when our body and mind are tired and stressed. Someone who’s never had sleepwalking history might sleep-talking too when they are in this state.

  3. rajar says:

    Hi jiaz3,

    Thank you for your comment. I have not heard about that from someone I knew before except from some readings. Well I think, the reason of why it is usually hard to wake them up is because sleepwalking happens during the 3rd and 4th stage of the NREM sleep, which is a very deep sleep stage. However, it still can be done.

    According to sleep experts, if we wake them up, the sleepwalker might experience cognitive impairment for about 30 minutes. And we must also remember to wake them up slowly and not to shock them because we might cause them to become startled, confused or agitated. So the best thing is we gently take them back to bed.

  4. Asher Trama says:

    Very interesting! I sleep walk sometimes – but usually earlier than 3 hours after falling asleep. Is it possible to have NREM sleep earlier in the sleep pattern? I also sleep talk, is that related to sleep walking?

  5. ebyers says:

    Hi rajar, this was an interesting read – I was known to sleepwalk in my younger days. I once brushed my teeth in my sleep! I still often sleeptalk as well and I think the two might be connected?

    Just in terms of some feedback on the article I think it might be good to consider putting in some subheadings between text in future blogs. For example I thought that in this article the ‘Runs in the family,’ ‘stages of sleep’ and ‘extreme cases’ could have all been separate subheading areas. It just makes it a bit easier to read that way. I also thought that maybe an image of the stages of sleep would have made it easier to visualise where the sleepwalking happens. I would say that its probably good practise generally to have more than one image if possible.

    Sleep is an interesting topic, since everyone does it yet it is still so mysterious. I look forward to further posts about it!

  6. jiaz3 says:

    Interesting post. I haven’t experienced any sleepwalking, but one thing I know about sleepwalking is we can’t wake them up. Have you heard this before, do you know the reasons about that?