Living with a sleepwalker: How should you handle it?

Picture the scene: you wake up during the night because of a strange sound — is someone making something in the kitchen at 3am? You go to the kitchen to find your partner clumsily banging pots and pans together in the dark and they don’t seem to be awake — they’re sleepwalking.

This type of scenario is not uncommon, with almost a third (29%) of people saying that they have had an episode of sleepwalking at some point in their lives (study). But, for the majority of those that don’t ever experience this condition, it can remain a mysterious and worrying disruptor, especially when you live with someone who is a sleepwalker.

With this in mind, we thought we’d take a closer look at what sleepwalking is, as well as sharing some top tips for managing sleep when you live with someone who goes on midnight adventures.

What is sleepwalking? What causes it?

Sleepwalking — known as somnambulism in academic circles — is a disorder that occurs during the deep sleep stage that causes the sleeper to perform actions. These can range from sitting up in bed to walking around to attempting more complex tasks. In most cases, the person doesn’t have any memory of the incident, owing to the fact that they remain asleep throughout.

While sleepwalking can begin at any age, it’s much more prevalent in children — the NHS estimates around 1 in 5 children will sleepwalk at least once. Most kids will grow out of the condition, but it’s possible for it to remain a problem into adulthood.

Unfortunately, science is yet to pin-point the exact cause of sleepwalking, but it does seem to be a hereditary issue. If parents or other close relatives are inclined to get up through the night, there’s a good chance other family members might do at some point too.

There are, however, some factors that can trigger or exacerbate sleepwalking, including:

  • Sleep deprivation
  • Stress and anxiety
  • Feeling feverish
  • Alcohol and recreational drugs
  • Some prescribed medication
  • Instances of disrupted deep sleep

What should I do when someone sleepwalks?

If someone close to you is a sleepwalker, then it’s important you know how to manage them so that they can safely return to bed and get back to sleep.

Know what sleepwalking looks like and what to expect

Should a loved one begin sleepwalking, it’s important that you know what to expect so that you aren’t taken by surprise and can calmly deal with the situation.

Firstly, remember most sleepwalkers have their eyes open through the whole episode, which can make it seem like they’re awake. Even if they appear to be looking at you, they probably will likely not show any recognition at all. However, they will often maintain some sense of where things are, so it’s possible that they’ll move around and even open cupboards or doors without much problem. You may be able to verbally communicate with a sleepwalker, but it’s likely to be nonsensical.

A typical sleepwalking episode usually lasts no longer than ten minutes, but they can go on longer than this. Often, the incident will end with the person waking up or returning to bed while still being in a state of sleep. They’re likely to have no or partial memory of the event, so having a conversation about what happened when they’re awake can be one-sided.

Make sure that they’re safe and try to guide them back to bed

The very first thing you need to do when you find that someone is sleepwalking is to ensure that they’re safe, and not posing a risk to themselves or others. If your loved one sleepwalks often, it’s worth removing any potentially harmful or breakable objects and keeping doors and windows locked.

If they’re up and about or in the middle of some type of action, you should keep a close eye on them and reassure them when necessary. The goal is to get them to go back to bed, so they might need a little gentle guidance to do so. Ideally, they will return to their room while still asleep and seamlessly transition back into regular rest.

Should your loved ones have a cycle of sleepwalking where they will get up more than once through the night, you can gently wake them once they’ve returned to bed the first time. This can help to break the pattern and allow them to enjoy undisturbed sleep for the rest of the night.

Encourage the sleepwalker to adopt a better sleep routine

When a loved one regularly sleepwalks or does so on a semi-regular basis, it can be helpful to help them review their sleep routine, as this can often minimise the conditions causing them to get up.

The following actions can help improve their sleep pattern:

  • Stick to a regular bedtime and wake-up time: This will help to programme the brain for sleep at a certain time of day, which is the foundation needed for undisturbed rest.
  • Ensure their bedroom is the ideal sleep environment: Room temperature should be between 16-18°C and the space should be as dark and quiet as possible to aid sleep.
  • Limit the intake of caffeinated drinks and alcohol before bed: These are sleep disruptors and are likely to harm the quality of sleep by interfering with their sleep cycle.
  • Partake in a relaxing activity before bed: Reading, taking a bath, meditation, yoga, and writing in a diary are just some of ways they can unwind ahead of a good night’s sleep.
  • Avoid using devices with screens before bed: The blue light from screens can alter the brain’s ability to wind down, so advise them to keep their bedroom free of technology.

Check out our past blog post on how to wind down and get better sleep for even more advice on improving your loved one’s sleep routine.

Recognise when a sleepwalker needs to seek medical advice

Should a loved one sleepwalk, it’s usually nothing to worry about. However, it is important to recognise when the time is right to seek medical advice for the condition.

Your loved one may need to seek treatment if their sleepwalking becomes frequent or they become a danger to themselves or others. A doctor may be able to identify an underlying issue that’s making the episodes worse and treat it, or they may refer to a sleep centre for further treatment.

Hopefully, you found our tips on managing a sleepwalker useful and you’re able to go to sleep with a greater peace of mind. Got any questions about the science of sleep? Then be sure to get in touch with our sleep experts. Or, head to our blog and advice centre for more information.

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