What Happens if You Wake Up a Sleepwalker?

The information in this article is for educational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice. [Read our full health disclaimer]

Updated on September 23, 2023

Imagine you woke up at midnight and saw someone walking around the home with a blank expression and their eyes wide-open. What would your reaction be? You would surely get startled if you are not aware of the phenomenon of sleepwalking.

Sleepwalking is a common disorder that is also known as somnambulism. There are some myths out there associated with sleepwalking, claiming that waking up a sleepwalker can cause brain damage, heart attack, and even death.

Is that true? What actually happens if you wake up a sleepwalker? Let’s find out the answers to these questions by looking at the facts!

Why Does Sleepwalking Occur?

There are several typical reasons that sleepwalking occurs, but its exact cause is still unknown. It’s assumed that sleepwalking occurs when a person is “stuck” between the state of light sleep and deep sleep. In addition, sleep disorders like sleep apnea and night terrors (a form of parasomnia) may also lead to sleepwalking.  

The following factors are associated with this condition:

  • Lack of sleep or irregular sleep schedule.
  • Drugs and some medications like antidepressants. 
  • Noisy sleeping environment.
  • Genetic predisposition.
  • Excessive use of sleep medicine. 
  • Medical conditions like fever, sleep apnea, restless legs syndrome, brain injury, etc.
  • Stress.

What Should You Do if Someone Is Sleepwalking?

It’s common that sleepwalkers won’t even notice you, and if you engage them and try to wake them up, they might end up being severely distressed and confused. Therefore, although it’s unlikely that waking a sleepwalker will lead to a coma or heart attack, it’s better not to engage them or try to wake them. 

Instead, you should gently take the sleepwalker to bed to prevent them from hurting themselves. That’s the answer in a nutshell. However, there’s a lot more nuance to the whys and the hows. Sleepwalkers are likely to do activities that they usually do during the day, so you definitely don’t want them trying to cook, handle sharp objects, or go out. Speaking of…

The Dangers of Sleepwalking

While sleepwalking episodes may seem relatively harmless or even amusing from a third-person perspective, they’re not without their dangers. Sleepwalking during childhood is indeed benign, but the situation gets relatively more complicated when it happens in adults.

Sleepwalkers have been known to jump out of bunk beds, climb out of windows, consume harmful chemicals, drive, and even have sex with strangers. While these all may seem like fringe cases, and for the most part, people would go about their daily routine when sleepwalking, you still wouldn’t want to ignore the potential hazards.

So, Whatever Happened With Never Wake Up a Sleepwalker?

To prevent a person from partaking in any of the aforementioned activities, you might just have to wake them up if leading them back to bed is not an option. But, should you? While we said that it’s not advised, it shouldn’t be avoided at all costs.

The belief that you should never wake up a sleepwalker largely stems from myths. Horror movies and ancient tales promoted this belief that waking up a sleepwalker is extremely dangerous. In the past, people believed that the soul would split from the body during sleepwalking. That was their explanation as to why sleepwalkers would act strangely in the middle of the night since, allegedly, their soul is disassociated from their bodies.

It’s safe to say that our souls aren’t going anywhere, sleepwalking or not. In fact, we’d say that not crashing a car while sleepwalking (or sleep-driving in this case) takes precedence over a middle-aged belief that you’d lose your soul.

Waking up a Sleepwalker and What Happens When You Do It

As we said, instead of abruptly waking a sleepwalker, you ought to gently guide them to their bed, but sometimes, that just doesn’t work. As sleepwalking occurs during the deep sleep stage (non-REM stage), which is the most restorative stage of sleep, the sleepwalking person might not respond to your guidance.

In that case, you could try calling out their name loudly until they snap out of it. Shaking them or grabbing them should be a last resort as the sleepwalker might see it as a perceived attack. At this point, chances are that the person in question is awake and probably utterly bewildered. Even if the situation seems humorous, avoid having fun at their expense. Explain that they’ve been sleepwalking, comfort them, and help the sleepwalker back to bed.

Is There a Cure for This “Disorder?”

No, there is no real cure for somnambulism. But, the good news is that it most often occurs in children aged 4-8 and goes away eventually (in most cases). For instance, children usually overcome it when they enter their adolescent years. 

If they don’t, and sleepwalking continues to be an issue during adulthood, it’d be best to try and tackle some of the potential underlying factors.

Steps You Can Take To Help With Sleepwalking

  • Stick to a regular sleep schedule and improve your sleep hygiene.
  • If possible, reduce or replace antidepressant drugs and sleep meds like Ambien.
  • Avoid sleeping in noisy environments no matter how tired you are.
  • Let another person in your home know that you are prone to sleepwalking.
  • (As always) consult your physician for proper medical advice.

Scheduled Awakening 

Scheduled awakening is helpful for children that sleepwalk quite frequently and engage in potentially harmful activities. For this purpose, you can take note of the time when your child sleepwalks and wake them up 30 minutes before their sleepwalking time.

Once they are up, let them fall asleep again, and this will reset their sleep cycle. While this technique is proven to be relatively effective in children, there aren’t any reasons why you shouldn’t try this either. As long as you have someone else willing to help you go through with it, it might just work in an if-all-else-fails type of situation.

Final Words 

Getting enough sleep is essential to our wellness, and since sleepwalking occurs during non-REM sleep, sleepwalkers tend to suffer from sleep deprivation, thus affecting many other aspects of their lives. If a family member or a roommate is a sleepwalker, you ought to help them mitigate the negative effects of this somewhat annoying occurrence. 

While they may seem confused or irritated at first, they’ll thank you in the long run. The belief that something scary may happen to sleepwalkers if you wake them is a myth. As long as you do so carefully, there’s no reason not to help them get back to bed and get the rest they sorely need.

Bree Taylor - Lead Editor

Lead Editor

Bree is an interior designer with a passion for helping people improve their sleep quality.

She specializes in creating comfortable and functional bedroom spaces that promote a good night’s rest.

When she’s not testing mattresses or helping people get the best rest possible, Bree loves to travel and explore new cultures.

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