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What Causes Sleepwalking? - Risk factors and important triggers

Medically reviewed by Nicole Aliling, MD · Neurology · Centre Médicale Internationale

Written by Den Alibudbud · Updated Dec 09, 2020

    What Causes Sleepwalking? - Risk factors and important triggers

    What causes sleepwalking? Is it a sign of damage to the brain? Can you prevent or manage sleepwalking in children and adults?

    When one sleeps, the body is at rest, your eyes are closed, and the nervous system is relatively inactive. However, some individuals experience “sleepwalking,” also known as somnambulism. This is defined as an arousal parasomnia consisting of a series of complex behaviors that are usually initiated during partial arousals from slow-wave sleep, resulting in large movements such as walking during sleep and etc.

    A sleepwalking individual may speak gibberish, be unresponsive to questions or requests, may have a blank facial expression, and may not remember anything when he or she wakes up.

    The Science of Sleep: Why Sleeping Matters

    The Science of Sleepwalking

    Sleepwalking is a type of sleep disorder, which is known as parasomnia. Parasomnia occurs when a person is in a transitional state between sleep and wakefulness, causing errors in timing and balance in the brain, which eventually lead to abnormal behaviors during sleep. 

    Sleep is divided into two phases. These are: 

    Rapid eye movement (REM sleep)

    This is the lightest stage of sleep where dream mentation occurs and muscle atonia prevents one from acting out his or her dream, and where one may wake easily

    Non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep

    One usually enters NREM sleep first as one falls asleep, which has several stages. The first stage begins as one’s ability to react to external stimuli decreases, thoughts start to drift, and muscle activity begins to slow. Then, one moves through the stages of NREM sleep until one reaches Stages 3 and 4, which are the deepest stages of NREM sleep and where sleepwalking usually occurs. 

    The American Academy of Sleep Medicine’s 2016 guideline classifies sleep into the following stages: wakefulness (Stage W), NonREM 1 (Stage N1), NonREM 2 (Stage N2), NonREM 3 (Stage N3, combining previous Stages 3 and 4), and Rapid Eye Movement (Stage R).

    These stages take place during the earlier part of the night and sleepwalking episodes typically last for a few seconds to an hour. Such sleepwalking activities range from walking to driving. However, some cases may lead to violent or inappropriate actions.

    what causes sleepwalking

    What Causes Sleepwalking?

    Most who experience sleepwalking are children between ages 7 and 15 because the areas of their brains do not develop at the same pace or the neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) that stifles the brain’s motor system is not yet fully developed to understand sleep cycles. Although the condition could begin in adulthood as well. Researchers believe that various factors trigger sleepwalking and these factors include:


    Various types of stress, either physical or emotional, can affect sleep, which may increase the tendency of sleepwalking.

    Sleep deprivation

    After a period of sleep deprivation, one may have more time spent in deep sleep, increasing the risk of sleepwalking.


    What causes sleepwalking? Researchers believe that alcohol consumption may be a contributing factor towards sleepwalking since it increases the amount of NREM deep sleep, which gives more time and opportunity for an episode to occur, and may heighten the risk of a violent one.


    Fever is one of the factors that strain the body in some manner, which may result in an increased number of illness-driven arousals during the night, especially for children.


    Having a sleepwalking episode can be triggered by medications that have a sedative effect because it induces sleep, making the person taking it more likely to be pushed into a deep sleep.

    Sleep disorders

    Sleep disorders such as obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) and Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS) may also lead a person into sleepwalking episodes. OSA causes short lapses in breath during sleep that can occur a large number of times per night, creating sleep interruptions, while RLS causes night-time arousals due to the powerful urge of a person to move the limbs, especially the legs, when lying down.

    Genetics and family history

    Studies show that sleepwalking is typically associated with a strong family history. It is 10 times more likely to occur if a first-degree relative has a history of sleepwalking. About 61% of children sleepwalk if both parents have a history of it, 47% of children sleepwalk if one parent does, and about 22% of the children who experience sleepwalking have parents with no history of this condition. T

    How to prevent or manage sleepwalking

    After understanding what causes sleepwalking, you can now move to the next step. Learn how to treat and manage the condition.

    Most sleepwalking cases pose little to no risk to the sleeper and those around them, so no active treatment is necessary. But in more serious cases, the treatment depends on the patient’s age, how frequently sleepwalking episodes occur, and how dangerous the episodes are. 

    However, there are things one can do in order to prevent or manage sleepwalking episodes and these include:

    Eliminate safety risks

    Make the house and bedroom as safe as possible to avoid sleepwalking injuries. Some ways to do these include:

    • Making sure that sharp objects or weapons are locked away and out of reach
    • Not letting a sleepwalker sleep in a bunk bed
    • Installing lights with motion sensors
    • Locking doors and windows
    • Removing tripping hazards from the floor
    • Using a house alarm to prevent the sleepwalker from leaving the house, especially to those with more serious cases

    Improve sleep hygiene

    People are more likely to experience sleepwalking episodes when they are stressed, overtired, or anxious. To prevent these episodes from occurring, one should avoid sleep deprivation as much as possible and practice having a regular sleep schedule. It is also helpful to maintain a quiet and relaxing sleeping environment.

    Treat underlying causes

    If a person has a sleep disorder such as OSA or RLS, sleepwalking may be resolved if such a condition is treated. However, medications with a sedative effect can trigger sleepwalking, so these should be avoided.

    Anticipated awakening

    Anticipatory awakening is a technique used to prevent a potential sleepwalking episode from occurring. Sleepwalking usually happens around the same time. It is connected to a specific sleep stage, so recording or observing the sleepwalker can help determine when and how long these episodes occur. Once confirmed, you can wake the sleepwalker up 15 minutes before the usual time of the episode. Then, keep them awake for at least 5 minutes. This has been proven effective in helping many children stop sleepwalking. However, has not been carefully studied in adult patients. 

    The Effects of Oversleeping on the Body

    Key Takeaways

    What causes sleepwalking? Sleepwalking is not yet fully-studied. Scientists, however, confirm that i is more common in children than in adults. Medication is unnecessary for most cases. But it is important to know its causes and how to prevent or moderate it. If the episodes are more frequent and concerning, visit the doctor for an accurate diagnosis and a tailored treatment plan.  

    Learn more about Healthy Sleep here. 


    Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

    Medically reviewed by

    Nicole Aliling, MD

    Neurology · Centre Médicale Internationale

    Written by Den Alibudbud · Updated Dec 09, 2020

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