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
- 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
- Restless leg syndrome
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
- Head injuries
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.
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.
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.