September 2020 | Reviewed by: Seema Khosla, MD and Imran Shaikh, MD
What is sleepwalking?
Sleepwalking is also called “somnambulism.” It is a parasomnia. A parasomnia involves undesired events that come along with sleep.
Sleepwalking occurs when you get up from bed and walk around even though you are still asleep. It can also involve a series of other complex actions. Before walking, you might sit up in bed and look around in a confused manner. At other times, you may bolt from the bed and walk or run away. You may be frantic to escape from a threat that you dreamed or imagined.
You might talk or shout as you are walking. Your eyes are usually open and have a confused, “glassy” look to them. You might begin doing routine daily actions that are not normally done at night.
Sometimes, sleepwalking involves actions that are crude, strange, or in the wrong place. This might include urinating in a trash can, moving furniture around, or climbing out of a window. It can also result in hostile and violent behavior although this is rare.
In rare cases, a patient will get in the car and drive away. He or she might even go for a very long distance. Adults might dream or hallucinate while they sleepwalk. Some people will eat.
It can be very hard to wake a sleepwalker up. When you do wake up, you can be very confused. This is because you normally have no memory of the event. You may sometimes recall bits and pieces of what took place. Less often, you will have a very clear memory of all that happened.
At times, you might even attack the person who wakes you. Men, especially, can be violent during these episodes. The walking can also suddenly end by itself. This might leave the individual in a very awkward place. At other times, the individual may return to bed while still asleep. He or she will have never awakened during the event.
Sleepwalking most often occurs in the first third of a night’s sleep or during other long sleep periods. This is during the slow-wave cycle of sleep. Every now and then, it can occur during a daytime nap.
Episodes can occur rarely, or very often. They can even happen multiple times a night for a few nights in a row. The main risk is injury to self, the bed partner, or others in the same home. It can also disrupt the bed partner’s sleep.
Sleepwalking can usually be seen as a fairly normal part of a child’s early sleep patterns. The child with calm sleepwalking may quietly walk toward a light or to the parents’ bedroom.
At times, kids will walk to a window or door, or even go outside. This can put them at great risk. Older children may be more vocal and active as they sleepwalk. Children who sleepwalk will often experience sleep talking and have sleep terrors.