Somnambulism (Sleepwalking):
Asleep With Your Eyes Wide Open

Written by Amy Lai

I still remember that night many years ago when I had my first experience of somnambulism, or sleepwalking. I was in the third grade and was living with my godparents while my parents were busy running a Chinese restaurant. The bedroom I slept in in my godparents' house was located in the middle of the hallway, right across from the bathroom.

It was a school night, which meant I was snuggled up in bed by 9 PM. As usual, I was knocked out within minutes of lying down. It must have been at least an hour later when I found myself awake (or so I thought) and inside the bathroom brushing my teeth. I remember thinking to myself that I had forgotten to brush my teeth before going to bed (which, let me add, was actually not true), and that I would feel unclean if I did not brush my teeth before getting in bed again.

My godmother, who was still awake, peeked through the gap in the doorway and asked me what I was doing. She was confused by my explanation but shrugged. Once I finished brushing my teeth, I climbed back into bed and fell asleep.

Sleepwalking is a common parasomnia. Episodes of somnambulism can range from small movements in bed to walking around, holding conversations, and in some cases even driving--all while asleep.

If you are in the 1% to 17% of people who has sleepwalked at least once in your lifetime, you have experienced the unique phenomenon of being asleep with your eyes wide open. In my case, I recalled quite clearly the details of my sleepwalking incident, but this is unusual. Most sleepwalkers are unable to remember having ever moved from bed in the middle of the night.

As you will learn in the following paragraphs, somnambulism is categorized as an arousal sleep disorder in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV). Read on to learn more about sleepwalking and what you can do to help prevent this bizarre phenomenon from happening to you in a disrupting manner.

What Do You Know About Sleepwalking?

Do you sleepwalk or have you been around someone who does? Share your sleepwalking stories, questions, and thoughts with us and our visitors.

What is Somnambulism?

Somnambulism, or sleepwalking, is a sleep disorder that fits into the arousal category of parasomnias. The range of activities that sleepwalkers engage in varies widely in type and complexity. A sleepwalker may do something as simple as sit up in bed, or something as involved as getting out of bed, walking down a flight of stairs, even getting into a vehicle, and driving away! All while still asleep!

People have even been known to perform some violent acts during sleep. You can learn more about murders committed while sleepwalking and the trials that followed here.

Sleepwalking usually occurs during the third or fourth stages of NREM sleep. This is the time of night when we are in deep, slow-wave sleep. Research has shown that sleepwalking is associated with a lightening of deep sleep to the level of NREM stage 1.

Because the NREM portion of the sleep cycle is longest at the beginning of the night (and becomes progressively shorter as the night wears on), sleepwalking is most likely to occur earlier in the night. Episodes typically range from 1 to 5 minutes, although it is not uncommon for episodes to last as long as or even more than an hour. Despite the prevalence of sleepwalking in the population, sleep scientists do not yet entirely understand the physiology associated with this sleep disorder.

Remember, as the name of the disorder implies, people who sleepwalk are entirely asleep. They are not easily awakened, and episodes often end spontaneously with the person getting back into bed without ever having woken up. If sleepwalkers do awaken, they will likely be confused and amnesic for the episode. Almost always, people who sleepwalk also sleep talk.

Who Sleepwalks?

While sleepwalking affects mostly children (particularly four to six-year-olds), some adults also experience sleepwalking episodes. In fact, fifteen to 30% of healthy children have experienced a sleepwalking episode before. Luckily, the tendency to sleepwalk normally subsides by the time children reach adolescence.

In addition, sleep scientists believe that people who have a family history of somnambulism are more likely to sleepwalk than those who do not.

Do you sleepwalk? Share your experiences with us.

What triggers sleepwalking episodes?

Factors that induce deep sleep at night are thought to play a role in causing sleepwalking. This is consistent with the observation that, as you learned in the previous section, sleepwalking occurs during the deep slow-wave stages of NREM sleep.

Factors that cause more deep sleep (or disrupt it) and predispose an episode of somnambulism include sleep deprivation, depressant medications, internal stimuli such as a full bladder, and external stimuli such as loud noises.

The causes of sleepwalking are still poorly understood, but sleep scientists suspect that a neurotransmitter (a fancy name for a chemical that transfers messages between the cells in your body) called serotonin may be involved. This has yet to be confirmed, and more research is necessary to gain a clearer understanding of the causes of somnambulism and of actions we can take to prevent ourselves and loved ones from sleepwalking.

What To Do If You or Someone You Know Sleepwalks

In general, sleepwalking is not something you should lose too much sleep over (no pun intended). It usually goes away on its own with age, and there is no evidence suggesting that most people who sleepwalk suffer from emotional or mental problems.

However, since sleepwalking episodes do involve people wandering around the house while completely asleep, it may be a good idea to take some precautions to make your house as safe and injury-proof as possible:

  1. Remove dangerous or sharp items such as knives.
  2. Lock all doors and windows before going to bed.
  3. Invest in heavy curtains for your windows. People have been known to get seriously injured sleepwalking out of a window.
  4. If you live in a multiple-story house, have the sleepwalker sleep on the ground floor. Sleeping in an upstairs bedroom increases the chance that you will fall and hurt yourself while sleepwalking down the stairs.

Have any questions? Ask us!

If worst comes to worst, medicine such as clonazepam can help raise your arousal threshold (so that internal and external stimuli have to be really intense to arouse you from sleep) and reduce the amount of deep, slow-wave sleep you get each night. But of course, if you think your somnambulism is severe enough to warrant medication, be sure to consult a sleep specialist before taking anything.

What should you do if you catch someone sleepwalking?

The best thing to do is gently guide him back to bed, avoiding as much physical contact as possible and talking to him or her soothingly. The idea is to try not to wake the sleepwalker up. If sleepwalkers are startled out of their state they are prone to lashing out violently and can hurt themselves and the person responsible for waking them.

What is the single best thing you can do to help prevent sleepwalking? Get enough sleep! Sleep deprivation is one of the common causes of sleepwalking and is easily preventable. If you have somnambulism, getting the amount of sleep you need each night can save you from experiencing severe episodes.

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Do You Have A Sleepwalking Story?

Do you have somnambulism? Do you have a story about you or someone else sleepwalking?

Share your story, thoughts, and questions with the world by writing in the form below--your insight could aid others who can relate to what you have experienced.

Read Other Somnambulism Stories

Click on the links below to read other stories, thoughts, and questions regarding somnambulism. They were all written by other visitors to this page, just like you.

Talking In My Sleep and Sleepwalking 
When I sleepwalk I do not remember a thing. However, I remember talking in my sleep, but not being able to make any sense. Shouldn't my experiences be …

I Remember All While Sleep Walking 
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Demonic Somnambulism? 
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Sleepwalking & Taking A Shower 
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Sleepwalking Can Be Dangerous: My Daughter Went Through The Window 
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Sleep "Running" (Never Walking) 
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Eyes Wide Shut 
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Kicking The Couch 
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Fully Awake To Somnambulism In Seconds? 
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Incarcerated With A History Of Sleepwalking 
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My Boyfriend's Sleep Walking Has Returned 
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Sleepwalking Doesn't Just Affect The Sleepwalker 
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My Sleepwalking Experience Waking Up In My Cousin's Bed 
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Showering While Sleepwalking 
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My 7-Year-Old Son Is A Violent Sleepwalker 
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Sleep Showering and Sleep Walking 
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"We Gotta Get Out" 
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My Girlfriend Is Sort Of Sleep Walking? 
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Still Sleepwalking At The Age of 19 
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Sleep Walking and Waking Up Very, Very Angry  
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My Sleepwalking Musical Expedition 
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A Sleepwalking Argument - Why Are You Mad At Me? 
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Where Am I? Amnesic Feeling After Sleepwalking 
I think it started when I was very young, but I can't be sure how often. Not until I was in High School did I put all the pieces together and conclude …

Click here to write your own.

Is It Normal For An 18-Year-Old To Be Sleepwalking? 
I've been doing some research about somnambulism and have seen that it usually is outgrown by the early teen years. I'm 18 years old and in the last …

Sleepwalking Only In My Room? 
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Found The Treasure - My Daughter's Sleepwalking Adventure 
It was in the middle of the night, I was awoken by the noise I hear in my closet. At first i was startled, then i heard someone talking. "I found the treasure!!," …

Bathroom Break, And Sleepwalking Stuff 
This morning, my husband says, "When I went to bed last night you immediately got up, went into the bathroom, then got back into bed. You were OUT though. …

Sleep Walking Weirding Out My Wife 
I was in a deep sleep, I remember getting out of bed an walking around the room to my wife's side of the bed. I paused for a moment and checked the time …

Using The Phone While Sleeping 
Apparently I made a telephone order in the middle of last night. I have no memory of this and ordered something I do not want/need. This was a complex …

Jumping Out Of A 2nd Story Window 
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Floating, Improperly Sized Blankets, Electric Sockets & Making Messes 
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Somnambulism Conversation - When Did I Eat Lunch? 
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Getting Ready For Work Only To Find Out I Was Sleepwalking 
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Really Creepy Sleepwalking 
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Severe Case Of Sleepwalking In An Adult... 
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Sleepwalking in the Grand Canyon 
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Somnambulism As A Young Boy Returns As An Adult 
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My Five-year-old Brother Sleepwalks Then Pees!! 
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Sleepwalking Becoming More Frequent For Me? 
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Strange Sleep Walking Experiences With Vivid Dreams 
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Long History Of Sleep Walking (And Remembering Everything That Happens) 
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Should I Seek Medical Advice For Sleepwalking? 
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I Wake Up From Sleepwalking By Drinking A Glass Of Water 
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Somnambulism Experienced 
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Moody Sleepwalking? 
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Sleepwalking Stroll 
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Sleepwalking Husband 
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Click here to write your own.

My Sleepwalking Experience - (Or Retrograde Amnesia?) 
I think I was in 3rd or 4th grade. My mom told me I feel asleep onto the couch in the living room. She told me to get up and go to bed. She said I got …

Is This Sleepwalking? 
Why is it that when I fell asleep last night, I woke up without realizing it while I was consecutively breathing hard and shaking with my eyes bright red? …

Click here to write your own.


Dement, William. The Stanford Sleep Book. United States of America: 2006. 377-78. Print.

Guilleminault, Christian, Luciana Palombini, Rafael Pelayo, and Ronald Chervin. "Sleepwalking and sleep terrors in prepubertal children: what triggers them?" Pediatrics 111. (2003);e17-25. Web. 8 May 2010.

Kushida, Clete. "Parasomnias." PSYC 135: Sleep and Dreams. Stanford University. Stanford University, Stanford, CA. 30 Apr 2010. Lecture.

Pelayo, Rafael, Kin Yuen, James Winde, and Maria-Cecilia Lopes. Sleep disorders in children. 379-80. Print.

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Welcome! This site is continuously being created by students of Dr. William C. Dement's Sleep And Dreams course at Stanford University.

We made this site as a call to action for people all over the world to live healthier, happier, safer, and more productive lives by learning about their own sleep. We have faith that reading the information provided on this site will motivate you to be smart about your sleep deprivation and strategic about your alertness in order to live life to your fullest, most energetic potential.

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