Overview

Sleepwalking — also known as somnambulism — involves getting up and walking around while in a state of sleep. More common in children than adults, sleepwalking is usually outgrown by the teen years. Isolated incidents of sleepwalking often don't signal any serious problems or require treatment. However, recurrent sleepwalking may suggest an underlying sleep disorder.

Sleepwalking in adults has a higher chance of being confused with or coexisting with other sleep disorders as well as medical conditions.

If anyone in your household sleepwalks, it's important to protect him or her from potential injuries related to sleepwalking.

Sleepwalking care at Mayo Clinic

Symptoms

Sleepwalking usually occurs early in the night — often one to two hours after falling asleep. It's unlikely to occur during naps. A sleepwalking episode can occur rarely or often, and an episode generally lasts several minutes, but can last longer.

Someone who is sleepwalking may:

  • Get out of bed and walk around
  • Sit up in bed and open his or her eyes
  • Have a glazed, glassy-eyed expression
  • Not respond or communicate with others
  • Be difficult to wake up during an episode
  • Be disoriented or confused for a short time after being awakened
  • Not remember the episode in the morning
  • Have problems functioning during the day because of disturbed sleep
  • Have sleep terrors in addition to sleepwalking

Sometimes, a person who is sleepwalking will:

  • Do routine activities, such as getting dressed, talking or eating
  • Leave the house
  • Drive a car
  • Engage in unusual behavior, such as urinating in a closet
  • Engage in sexual activity without awareness
  • Get injured, for example, by falling down the stairs or jumping out a window
  • Become violent during the period of brief confusion immediately after waking or, occasionally, during sleepwalking

When to see a doctor

Occasional episodes of sleepwalking aren't usually a cause for concern and typically resolve on their own. You can simply mention the sleepwalking at a routine physical or well-child exam. However, consult your doctor if the sleepwalking episodes:

  • Occur often — for example, more than one to two times a week or several times a night
  • Lead to dangerous behavior or injury to the person who sleepwalks or to others
  • Cause significant sleep disruption to household members or the person who sleepwalks
  • Result in daytime symptoms of excessive sleepiness or problems functioning
  • Start for the first time as an adult
  • Continue into your child's teen years

Causes

Sleepwalking is classified as a parasomnia — an undesirable behavior or experience during sleep. Sleepwalking is a disorder of arousal, meaning it occurs during N3 sleep, the deepest stage of non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep. Another NREM disorder is sleep terrors, which can occur together with sleepwalking.

Many factors can contribute to sleepwalking, including:

  • Sleep deprivation
  • Stress
  • Fever
  • Sleep schedule disruptions, travel or sleep interruptions

Sometimes sleepwalking can by triggered by underlying conditions that interfere with sleep, such as:

  • Sleep-disordered breathing — a group of disorders featuring abnormal breathing patterns during sleep (for example, obstructive sleep apnea)
  • Taking certain medications, such as hypnotics, sedatives or certain medications used for psychiatric disorders
  • Substance use, such as alcohol
  • Restless legs syndrome
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)

Risk factors

Factors that may increase the risk of sleepwalking include:

  • Genetics. Sleepwalking appears to run in families. It's more common if you have one parent who has a history of sleepwalking, and much more common if both parents have a history of the disorder.
  • Age. Sleepwalking occurs more often in children than adults, and onset in adulthood is more likely related to other underlying conditions.

Complications

Sleepwalking itself isn't necessarily a concern, but a person who sleepwalks can:

  • Hurt themselves — especially if they walk near furniture or stairs, wander outdoors, drive a car or eat something inappropriate during a sleepwalking episode
  • Experience prolonged sleep disruption, which can lead to excessive daytime sleepiness and possible school or behavior issues
  • Be embarrassed or experience problems with social relationships
  • Disturb others' sleep
  • Rarely, injure someone else nearby

Sleepwalking care at Mayo Clinic

July 21, 2017
References
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