Sleep Science

The Strangest UK Sleepwalking Stories Uncovered

An image of John Patterson
22 Dec 20185 min read

While the majority of people will know someone that suffers from a sleep disorder, sleepwalking is the one that fascinates people the most due to it being a lot more dramatic than, say, chronic snoring.

We asked the public to share their weirdest sleepwalking tales with us and also contacted a sleep expert to help further understand the triggers and answers to the most frequently asked questions.

Here are some standout sleepwalking stats:

  • It’s estimated that 40% of all children sleepwalk at least once.
  • 4 out of 5 sufferers have a sleepwalking family member.
  • If you have a mental health issue such as depression, you’re up to 5x more likely to sleepwalk.
  • People that sleepwalk have been found to be better at multi-tasking than those who don’t when awake.
  • 80% of people who identify as sleepwalkers claim to have done so frequently for more than 5 years.
  • Studies show that around 4% of adults sleepwalk regularly, which equates to over 5 million Brits.

The UK’s sleepwalking stories

When you think of someone sleepwalking, you’re likely picturing them wandering around the house, arms outstretched, in their pyjamas.

However, the term also applies to when a person remains in bed. A sleepwalker may go down to the kitchen and prepare themselves a snack but equally may simply sit up with their eyes open whilst still asleep.

We asked Brits to share their strangest sleepwalking stories and they certainly didn’t disappoint:

An infographic describing sleepwalking stories from across the UK.

How to cope with symptoms: advice from a sleep expert

To find out how the condition affects people of all ages, we consulted an expert - Lauren Peacock, Child Sleep Consultant and Owner of Little Sleep Stars - for answers to the most commonly asked sleepwalking questions.

What are the main triggers for sleepwalking?

Sleepwalking is a type of parasomnia (a category of sleep disorder characterised by abnormal movements, behaviours or emotions during sleep).

As with some other parasomnias such as night terrors, sleepwalking often appears to run in families, with around 4 out of 5 sufferers having a sleepwalking family member. Whilst the exact causes of sleepwalking lack widespread agreement, a number of things are known to trigger episodes:

  • Not enough or poor-quality sleep
  • Ingesting caffeine or other stimulants close to bedtime
  • Poor sleep onset latency – either falling asleep instantly or taking longer than 30 minutes
  • A low-quality sleep environment (i.e. too much light, too noisy)
  • Consumption of alcohol & some medications (e.g. sedatives and antihistamines)
  • High levels of stress or anxiety
  • Underlying medical issues (e.g. Sleep Apnoea or Periodic Limb Movement Disorder)
  • Febrile illnesses (especially in children)

These triggers impact our body’s ability to settle down into restful NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep. It is during this phase that sleepwalking occurs, as the process of transitioning smoothly into a sleep-state is stalled.

This is because we either “crash” rather than drifting off naturally or spend too long trying to get to sleep.

When is sleepwalking most common?

Children are much more likely to sleepwalk than adults. Whilst adult-onset sleepwalking does occur, it’s estimated that up to 40% of children sleepwalk at least once. It's actually a regular occurrence for 3-5% of children. Those aged 3 to 8 years old typically the most commonly affected.

In adults, the figure is closer to 4%. It’s not known why sleepwalking is more prevalent in children than adults.

It may be that they are more likely to become sleep-deprived / overtired. It may also be that they spend a great deal more time asleep than adults. This means there is a greater window in which parasomnias may strike.

How can you lower your chances of sleepwalking?

It’s easy to write sleepwalking off as harmless and even funny in some instances, but there are risks involved. While for the majority of sufferers, episodes pass without issue - injury can occur.

For this reason, the surroundings should be made as safe as possible. This includes properly securing furniture, using stairgates, locking doors and windows. Also, place house/car keys where they are not immediately accessible.

If you or someone you know is prone to sleepwalking – here are some tips to help lower its occurrence.

All ages
  • Ensure you get enough exercise and outdoor activity to keep your body clock in check.
  • Avoid caffeine and other stimulants later in the day.
  • Eliminate screen for at least an hour before bedtime
  • Take a relaxing bath or perform calming activities like reading to unwind before bed.
  • Ensure that the bedroom is cool, dark, quiet and calming.
  • If you are either crashing out as soon as your head hits the pillow or lying awake for 30+ minutes before falling asleep, take steps to address the cause. This may include reducing your alcohol intake or seeking help to deal with anxiety.
Younger children
  • Make sure there is a calm and consistent bedtime routine of 30-40 minutes. Use the same steps, in the same order, at the same time each day.
  • Consider rousing them slightly after their first hour of sleep or 15 minutes before the time at which they tend to sleepwalk. This will reset their sleep pattern and reduce occurrences.
  • Many children benefit from a daytime nap until around 3-3½ years old. Beyond that, ensure there’s “quiet time” in the middle of the day to help reduce overtiredness.
  • If you or your child takes regular medication, discuss with your GP whether this could be a contributing factor to the sleepwalking.

What is the best way to approach someone that is sleepwalking?

Even though a sleepwalker is likely to have their eyes open, they are essentially in a fairly deep state of sleep.

It is usually very difficult to wake them and actually, it’s not the best course of action. This is likely to leave them confused, disorientated or even distressed.

Imagine someone waking you up mid-sleep-cycle when you really didn’t want to be woken. Now imagine being in that state with someone shouting at or shaking you.

An infographic guide on how to safely help a sleepwalker in your house.

The best course of action is to gently guide the sleepwalker back to their bed. Here they are more likely to settle back down. Once this is done, stay with them to make sure they’re okay and settled. This is particularly important if the sleepwalker is a child.

If this approach doesn’t work, you can then try to gently wake the person. Ideally in the safety and familiarity of their bed. Of course, if someone is on the verge of doing something dangerous whilst sleepwalking, attempting to rouse them can end up being the only viable option.

The shock of waking and finding themselves somewhere other than their bed, doing something wholly odd, is often disorientating. However, for an otherwise healthy sleepwalker, this is unlikely to cause them harm.

In the immediate confusion, the recently woken sleepwalker may lash out. So, if you really do have to wake them it is wise to do so from a safe distance.

Those who experience sleepwalking have individual responses to it. Some sufferers are embarrassed, and children may be confused or anxious about what is happening.

As such, steps should be taken to monitor and address regular sleepwalking including talking to your GP or paediatrician.

Learn more about getting a great night's sleep

Looking for tips on how to get a good night’s sleep? Check out our articles on the benefits of reading at bedtime and the relaxing power of essential oils for insights into getting yourself into a restful nighttime routine. These and a range of other topics are available for you to browse on the Mattress Online blog.