Is it dangerous to wake a sleepwalker?
Professor Alice Gregory puts to bed this sleeping myth.
When someone is sleepwalking they’ll move out of bed and show complex behaviours while lacking high-level cognition (such as planning). They’re also likely to have their eyes open and may be staring vacantly, which can be disconcerting to anyone they encounter.
Sleepwalking, also known as somnambulism, involves a partial arousal from deep sleep. This typically occurs during the Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM) stage of sleep. This type of sleep predominates during the beginning of the night, which is why sleepwalking typically happens at this point.
Children are more likely than adults to sleepwalk due to the composition of their sleep. Overall prevalence rates of sleepwalking vary widely, but one meta-analysis estimated as many as 7 per cent of people sleepwalk.
As to whether it’s dangerous to wake a sleepwalker, it’s not advisable to do this forcefully as this could lead to disorientation or even a violent response from the sufferer. However, in certain circumstances, it may be appropriate to gently wake someone who has completed a sleepwalking episode and let them fall back to sleep again in order to prevent them from moving straight back into another sleepwalking episode.
If you discover a sleepwalker, rather than waking them, you might want to calmly lead them back to their bed in order to help ensure their safety.
Alice is a Professor of Psychology at Goldsmiths. She has contributed to several diverse research areas, including the longitudinal associations between sleep and psychopathology, behavioural genetics, sleep paralysis and exploding head syndrome. In addition to her scientific contributions she also excels in the public engagement of science. She has published two popular science book (Nodding Off, Bloomsbury, 2018 and Sleepy Pebble, Nobrow, 2019). She regularly contributes articles to the media and has had her work published in outlets including the Guardian, GQ UK, Sud Ouest, Slate Fr, Independent.
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