Sleepwalking, formally known as somnambulism, causes a sleeping person to walk around or do things that should only happen when awake. It’s not usually serious, and preventive measures can keep it from causing injuries.
Sleepwalking is a sleep disorder that causes you to move around or engage in unusual or unexpected activities while asleep. This condition often runs in families, and most people grow out of it.
The formal name for sleepwalking is somnambulism, which comes from Latin words that mean “sleep” and “walking.” Experts classify it as a sleep disorder (parasomnia).
About 7% of people sleepwalk at least once in their lifetime. Sleepwalking usually starts in childhood, and most people grow out of it by the time they become adults. Within a year, about 5% to 15% of children — most often between ages 4 and 8 — and 1% to 1.5% of adults experience sleepwalking.
Like the name suggests, most people who sleepwalk stand up and walk around while asleep. But other activities during sleep are also possible. Sleepwalking usually involves several or all the following features:
While most people can’t do complex activities while sleepwalking, that’s not universal. In rare cases, people were even able to drive or cook while sleepwalking. And complex actions are more likely if you’re sleep-deprived (especially going more than 24 hours without sleep) before the sleepwalking episode.
Experts aren’t sure why sleepwalking happens. The only possible sleepwalking cause that researchers can pinpoint with any certainty — at least for now — is genetics. Children of sleepwalkers are more likely to sleepwalk, too. If one parent has a history of sleepwalking, their child has a 47% chance of also doing it. That goes up to 62% if both parents have a history of sleepwalking. Research also links a specific gene mutation, HLA-DQB1*05, to a higher risk of sleepwalking in people who are white.
Several possible risk factors could make someone more likely to sleepwalk or trigger a sleepwalking episode, including:
Research indicates that several types of medication might trigger sleepwalking episodes. Some of the most likely medications include (but aren’t limited to) the following:
If you think a medication might contribute to your sleepwalking (or sleepwalking in a loved one), it’s a good idea to talk to a healthcare provider. They can review medications and determine if there’s a risk.
A healthcare provider can usually diagnose sleepwalking based on descriptions of what you did or how you acted while sleepwalking. Loved ones who witness sleepwalking can provide extremely helpful details that can lead to a sleepwalking diagnosis. Videos you take on your phone or on a security system can also be helpful, as sleepwalking doesn’t happen every night, so it can be hard to capture in a sleep study.
A full sleep study (polysomnography) is the best medical test to confirm sleepwalking. But these aren’t always necessary. Your healthcare provider (or your child’s provider) may recommend a sleep study if any of the following are true:
Sleepwalking doesn’t usually need direct treatment. When it does, there are nonmedication approaches that your provider can recommend. They include:
There aren’t any U.S. Food and Drug (FDA)-approved drugs specifically for sleepwalking. In some cases, a provider might recommend medications that alter neurotransmitter levels, although there’s no evidence that they work. Neurotransmitters are chemicals your brain uses to send signals and control processes throughout your nervous system.
Medications that can affect neurotransmitters include:
Your healthcare provider may also prescribe a sedative so you’re less likely to be aroused during sleep.
Sleepwalking happens unpredictably and for reasons experts don’t understand. That means you can’t stop it from occurring in the first place.
But you can take steps to reduce the risk of repeat sleepwalking episodes. You can:
Your healthcare provider can recommend other things you might do to reduce the risk of sleepwalking episodes.
Sleepwalking increases your risk of injury. You may slip and fall or do other things that you shouldn’t do unless you’re fully awake and attentive. Though it’s uncommon, some people who sleepwalk may do things to others that aren’t appropriate or safe. Examples include inappropriate sexual behaviors (also known as sexsomnia). Others may experience confusion and become agitated if woken up. For these reasons, it’s important to try to prevent sleepwalking episodes and take safety precautions.
Sleepwalking is usually something children grow out of once they reach puberty. Only about 1% of people who walked in their sleep as children are still sleepwalking as adults. If you don’t grow out of it, the episodes usually become less frequent as you get older.
Sleepwalking usually isn’t serious. But people who sleepwalk are at high risk for injury from things like falling down stairs, jumping out of windows, sleep driving, eating and cooking in sleep. There are even recorded instances where people became violent while sleepwalking. Fortunately, violent behavior is very rare.
There are several steps you can take to lower the chance of injury or harm, such as:
Some questions you can ask your or your child’s provider include:
People may be confused or disoriented if you wake them while they’re sleepwalking. In rare instances, they might respond out of fear or anger to whatever — or whomever — woke them up. If you have to wake a sleepwalker, do it gently and try not to scare or startle them. The safest thing to do with a sleepwalker is to guide them back to bed gently. In most cases, they’ll simply go back to sleep and won’t remember what happened.
People often have their eyes open while sleepwalking. But it’s usually clear that they aren’t fully awake. They usually don’t react to or seem aware of things that should be in their field of view. People who sleepwalk don’t remember it, so they can’t tell you what they see. There are no reports in the medical literature about what they see.
Sleepwalking isn’t usually serious, but it still comes with risks. That’s why it’s important to prevent it whenever possible or at least limit the potential for injury. If you must wake someone who’s sleepwalking, it won’t hurt them. Just remember that when they wake from an episode, confusion is very common. They’ll likely be groggy or feel disoriented for several minutes. The safest and best thing to do is gently steer them back to bed. They probably won’t remember what happened, but you may rest a little easier knowing they’re safe.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 10/13/2023.
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