Why Do People Sleepwalk?

We explore the causes and symptoms of sleepwalking and offer some practical solutions to those affected


Sleepwalking is where somebody engages in a complex activity, such as walking, while they’re in a deep state of sleep. Not only can sleepwalking be concerning and confusing for the asleep person and anyone near them—it can be disconcerting, and also potentially dangerous.

In this article, we’ll explore some of the reasons why people sleepwalk, sleepwalking symptoms and causes, along with some insights into how to stop sleepwalking if you’re affected.

What Happens During Sleepwalking?

Sleepwalking is often referred to as “somnambulism”, which is originally a French word combining the Latin words for ‘sleep’ (somnus) and ‘to walk’ (ambulare).

This complex behavior falls within the category of sleep disorders, and involves individuals carrying out motor acts that are usually performed during a state of full consciousness—but while they’re in a deep sleep. While the name describes walking while sleeping, sleepwalking can easily involve other activities including:

  • Talking
  • Eating 
  • Cleaning
  • Sending emails
  • Getting dressed

Worryingly, in extreme cases, sleepwalkers may even engage in more dangerous or, let’s say, unwise activities while asleep,  such as:

  • Leaving the house
  • Driving a vehicle
  • Sexual activity
  • Cooking
  • Falling down stairs
  • Jumping out of windows

Sleepwalking episodes occur during deep sleep, specifically non-REM sleep, so the sleepwalker has no idea what they’re doing. If woken up or roused during a sleepwalking episode, individuals are likely to be confused and extremely disoriented, and may even become violent.

The Science Behind Sleepwalking

The nuts and bolts of sleepwalking lie within the four sleep stages, which humans pass through during sleep. During the deep sleep stages, or non-REM sleep, the brain's activity is slightly different from its activity during REM sleep, which allows sleepwalking to be possible. 

The non-REM stage is when your body is supposed to be at complete rest—and yet for sleepwalkers, it can lead to unexpected activity. This paradox raises questions about how the brain functions—what is it causing to merge sleep and wakefulness at the same time. 

Some scientists have speculated that sleepwalking is caused by the brain attempting to directly transition from deep non-REM sleep to wakefulness, rather than going through the later stages of the sleep cycle.

There is likely to be a genetic link, with researchers finding the condition can be inherited. If one parent has a history of sleepwalking, their child has a 47% chance of also doing it. That rises to 62% if both parents have a history of sleepwalking.

Causes of Sleepwalking

There are a number of possible causes for sleepwalking, many of them linked to interruptions in the non-REM sleep phase. These may be a result of:

  • Alcohol consumption: Drinking alcohol in the evenings can lead to the sleep stages becoming unstable, increasing the risk of sleepwalking
  • Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA): This sleep disorder causes the airway to get blocked, which causes short lapses in breathing during sleep. This may create interruptions which could lead to sleepwalking
  • Restless leg syndrome (RLS): This disorder gives the sleeping person a powerful urge to move their limbs, which may cause them to enter a sleepwalking episode
  • Fever: Because having a fever may mean the sleeper is roused during the deep sleep phase, this may lead to them sleepwalking. This is particularly true for children

Other factors may include:

  • Lack of sleep: If the individual is sleep deprived, they may spend more time in deep sleep, which could result in a sleepwalking episode
  • Sedatives: Medications that have a sedative effect, such as Mirtazapine and Zolpidem, may lead to a quality of sleep that leads to sleepwalking
  • Brain injury: Traumatic brain injury can lead to sleep disorders including sleepwalking
  • Stress: This can lead to an interrupted, disturbed sleep which could increase the likelihood of sleepwalking

Sleepwalking Symptoms

Identifying the symptoms of sleepwalking can be challenging, since they often occur during deep sleep—meaning the person affected has no memory whatsoever of the event. 

Any awake person who encounters the sleepwalker, of course, will be in a more suitable state to recognize symptoms. The following are common:

  • Appearance of being awake
  • Eyes open
  • Blank facial expression
  • Unresponsiveness to communication
  • No memory of the sleepwalking episode

If you’re affected by sleepwalking, understanding these symptoms is crucial for being able to recognize the condition in your family and loved ones, and to ensure the safety of the sleepwalker and other people living under the same roof. 

What to Do About Sleepwalking

When it comes to addressing sleepwalking, it’s advisable to take a multifaceted approach, firstly by eliminating known triggers. What this entails in each particular case will be different—the alcohol-drinking sleepwalker will want to try stopping consumption earlier, while the sleep-deprived sleep-walker may try getting more rest.

Establishing a consistent sleep schedule is advisable for anybody experiencing sleep disorder such as sleepwalking. This may involve avoiding daytime naps, reducing caffeine consumption, and avoiding watching TV/going on the Internet just before bed.

Relaxing techniques such as deep breathing, yoga, and meditation can also be useful in aiding a sounder sleep. Apps like Pillow can offer valuable insights into sleep patterns and potential triggers for individual episodes.

Some sleepwalkers have had success using a technique called anticipatory awakening, where a gentle wake-up call is scheduled just before the period of sleep where a sleepwalking episode is likely to occur. This can have the effect of resetting the sleep cycles and avoiding sleepwalking episodes.

A safe environment

Lastly, if there’s a sleepwalker in your household, it’s crucial to create a safe and secure environment where the affected person cannot endanger themself or others. This may include:

  • Lock all doors and windows
  • Remove obstacles from the floor
  • Cover sharp corners to avoid injury risk
  • Install safety gates at the top of stairs 

Sleepwalking, or somnambulism, presents a fascinating yet complex challenge that intertwines deep sleep stages with involuntary physical activities. Understanding the symptoms, underlying causes, and effective prevention strategies is crucial for those affected by this condition. By adopting a comprehensive approach that includes lifestyle adjustments, environmental safety measures, and possibly medical intervention, individuals can mitigate the risks associated with sleepwalking. 

Moreover, fostering a supportive environment for sleepwalkers not only enhances their safety but also contributes to a better understanding and management of this intriguing sleep disorder. Whether through minimizing known triggers, employing relaxation techniques, or utilizing technology like Pillow to monitor sleep patterns, the journey towards mitigating sleepwalking episodes is a proactive one. It underscores the importance of sleep hygiene and the need for personalized strategies to ensure the safety and well-being of sleepwalkers and their families.


Written by

Georgia Austin

Professionally trained copywriter, editor, and content marketing strategist with over 7 years of experience—working with brands like Nike, Siemens, Toshiba, Tommy Hilfiger, Culture Trip, and Klook.

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