Why Can't You Wake Up A Sleepwalker? (Reasons + Myths)

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Did your parents or friends ever tell you that you sleepwalk at night? It’s not uncommon for parents to find their children, in the middle of the night, walking around the house while fully asleep. You may find your own children, your partner, or your roommate sleepwalking. And this can be a tricky situation because most people have heard the advice to never wake up a sleepwalker. But why can’t you wake up a sleepwalker?

The truth is that this advice is based on an old wives' tale. But if you do live with a sleepwalker, you may benefit from knowing why they sleepwalk and what will happen if you do wake them up! Keep reading for answers to all the questions you've ever asked about sleepwalking.

Why Can’t You Wake Up a Sleepwalker?

You can wake up a sleepwalker, but it’s not dangerous. The sleepwalker may wake up in a state of confusion and feel disoriented because they are in a deep state of sleep. If you catch someone sleepwalking, it's best to gently guide them back to bed.

Why Do People Sleepwalk?

Sleep experts still have a lot of unanswered questions about why people sleepwalk. Many believe that sleepwalking has to do with underdevelopment in the brain. This is because children are most likely to sleepwalk, and they grow out of the habit as adults.

It's important to know the various stages of sleep to understand why people sleepwalk. Sleep is generally experienced in two stages: REM and non-REM sleep. REM sleep, or "rapid eye movement" sleep, is the state in which we dream. To prevent our bodies from acting out our dreams, our muscles are pretty much paralyzed. (Except for our eyes, which move rapidly behind our eyelids!)

Sleepwalking occurs during the deepest stages of non-REM sleep.

So, contrary to what many people think, we aren't actually dreaming as we are sleepwalking! Talking in our sleep also occurs in non-REM sleep, so you are not reciting your dreams when you are chatting in bed. 

How Sleepwalking Works

The body cycles from REM sleep to non-REM sleep many times throughout the night. As the body transitions out of REM sleep, or into the deepest stages of non-REM sleep, the muscles are no longer paralyzed. On most nights, the brain emits a neurotransmitter called GABA to the body. GABA inhibits the motor system from acting.

Experts believe that because children have an insufficient amount of GABA in the brain, the motor system is not inhibited. This gives it the ability to stand up, walk around, open the fridge, etc. A person may eat an entire meal while sleepwalking!

This does not explain why adults sleepwalk (or sleep drive, or sleep jump through windows.) But again, sleep experts still have a lot of questions about sleepwalking. They still don't even know why a sleepwalker's brain tells the body to move.

Should You Wake Up a Sleepwalker?

Why does a sleepwalker feel so disoriented when they wake up? Because they are in such a deep state of sleep while sleepwalking. The feeling is similar to if your alarm were to go off while you were in a deep state of sleep: groggy, confused, or scared. 

So should you wake up a sleepwalker? If you don't have to, you should let them continue through the cycles of sleep so they can wake up more refreshed. Gently guide them back to sleep. Sleepwalkers may even talk in their sleep, which is totally normal.

If the sleepwalker is about to do something dangerous, do not feel afraid to wake them up to prevent them from hurting themselves. Your sleepwalker will not have a heart attack because they were woken up in non-REM sleep.

How to Prevent Sleepwalking in Children

The most likely cause of sleepwalking in children is their DNA. Sleepwalking is hereditary. It's likely if you or a family member sleepwalked as a child, your child will, too. There is not much you can do to prevent a child from sleepwalking.

What you can do is make sure that the house is safe and secure if your child does sleepwalk. Keep all doors and windows locked. Put away sharp objects or cover electrical outlets if your child is especially young. Encourage them to sleep on the bottom bunk if they have bunk beds. Sleepwalkers can still open doors and even make a meal while sleepwalking. It may be useful to record your child's sleepwalking habits to see what trouble they could get into.

If you go to sleep earlier than your child, you may want to keep watch. Sleepwalking is most likely to occur one or two hours after your child has gone to bed and entered deep sleep for the first time. If you can catch them sleepwalking, guide them back to bed.

Most likely, your child will grow out of sleepwalking by the time they are a teenager. If sleepwalking persists into their teen years and adulthood, consider seeing a sleep specialist.

Sleepwalking as an Adult (Other Causes of Sleepwalking)

Other causes of sleepwalking in children and/or adults include:

  • Fatigue and inadequate sleep schedules
  • Insomnia
  • Fever
  • Migraines
  • Stress or anxiety
  • Other neurological conditions
  • Side effects of medications
  • Alcoholism

To prevent sleepwalking as an adult, consider adjusting your schedule and nighttime routine. Sleeping at the same time every night will help you establish a better sleep schedule. Unwinding with a paperback book, warm bath, or calming music will ease you into sleep better than your cell phone. Limit caffeine and alcohol, especially in the evening. Find ways to de-stress so that stress does not interfere with your sleep. This advice will help you sleep better even if you don't sleepwalk at night. Plus, it will keep you healthy!

If sleepwalking persists as an adult, talk to a sleep specialist. Let them know:

  • How often you are sleepwalking
  • When you are sleepwalking (early in the night or later at night)
  • Any medications you are on
  • Whether you have experienced migraines, asthma, or trouble breathing at night
  • Family history of sleepwalking or neurological conditions

The sleep specialist may offer tailored advice to help you get better sleep at night. Or, they may prescribe antidepressants or another type of medication to help prevent further incidents of sleepwalking.

Sleepwalking is a common phenomenon, but it can be dangerous if left unchecked. Don't be afraid to wake up a sleepwalker if they are putting themselves in danger! You won't hurt them, but you may just confuse them.

Other Old Wives' Tales To Know

The idea that you shouldn't wake up a sleepwalker is commonly known as an "old wives' tale." Old wives' tales are commonly-held beliefs that are based more on stories than on the truth.

Other examples of old wives' tales include:

  • You will get cramps and drown if you go swimming less than 30 minutes after eating.
  • Gum stays in your stomach for seven years if you swallow it.
  • Plucking one gray hair will cause three more to grow in its place.
  • Having a Bloody Mary at breakfast will cure your hangover.
  • Peeing on a jellyfish sting will make the pain go away.

Reference this article:

Practical Psychology. (2022, April). Why Can't You Wake Up A Sleepwalker? (Reasons + Myths). Retrieved from https://practicalpie.com/why-cant-you-wake-up-a-sleepwalker/.

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