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True or False: Never Wake a Sleepwalker

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mythbuster graphic If you’ve ever woken up in the middle of the night to find someone sleepwalking around the house, you know that it’s an unnerving experience. But should you wake the person up? Some people argue that waking sleepwalkers will confuse and anger them, possibly endangering the person doing the waking. Others believe that sleepwalkers should be woken up because they may harm themselves if left alone.

Sleepwalking is called a disorder of arousal, and family history is usually what determines whether or not a person will be a sleepwalker. Common triggers, such as sedatives, medications, or fever, will often only affect those people who are predisposed to sleepwalking. About 18% of the population is prone to sleepwalking, and sleepwalking is common in children (especially those whose parents were sleepwalkers when they were young). Most children who start sleepwalking at an early age outgrow it by the time they reach adolescence. However, if children start sleepwalking after age 9 it is likely that they will continue into adulthood.

Evidence for the Health Claim

The idea that sleepwalkers should not be woken up is a widely held belief. Some people think waking the sleepwalker will increase his risk of a heart attack . However, most believe that the person doing the walking is at a greater risk for harm.

Research on similar forms of sleep pathology has found that some people do get aggressive when woken up from the non-REM (rapid eye movement) phase of the sleep cycle (which is when sleepwalking occurs). One study attributed 20 cases of murder and 30 criminal offenses to “sleep drunkenness,” a condition similar to sleepwalking. Other studies also caution against waking up sleepwalkers because of possible resistance and violence.

Evidence Against the Health Claim

The myth that a sleepwalker should be left alone stems from an ancient belief that the soul leaves the body during sleep, and if a sleepwalker is woken up they will be a body without a soul. Metaphysical reasoning aside, the presumption that sleepwalkers will exhibit wildly disturbed behavior when awakened is largely unfounded. Although some people may become aggressive, researchers have found that most of the time sleepwalkers are simply confused, disoriented, scared, or embarrassed. Waking a sleepwalker should be done as gently as possible to avoid such responses.

It is difficult to wake a person who is sleepwalking, and many sleep experts recommend gently guiding the person back to bed instead. Sleepwalkers most likely will not remember the incident in the morning. It is important to get the person to go back to sleep in his or her bed because sleepwalkers often engage in activities that should require full attention, and thus are dangerous to do while partially asleep. Such behaviors include leaving the bed and walking down stairs, eating, drinking, cooking, and even driving a car. Therefore, leading the sleepwalker back to bed, and waking him if necessary, is the safest option.

Conclusion

Although it is possible that waking a sleepwalker could be met with resistance or aggression, it is highly unlikely that the person doing the waking will be harmed. Instead, the sleepwalker could unknowingly jeopardize his own health if not deterred and helped back to bed. It is difficult and often unnecessary to wake a sleepwalker, but doing so may be the best option if the person refuses to return to bed with gentle guidance.

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  • Children and sleepwalking. Stanford University website. Available at: http://www.stanford.edu/~dement/slpwalking.html . Updated April 1998. Accessed November 10, 2008.

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  • Sleepwalking in children. Funded Agency Channel website. Available at: https://fac.dhs.vic.gov.au/documents/october%5F05.pdf . Accessed August 1, 2006.

  • Image Credit: Nucleus Communications, Inc.