Sipho is sitting in his room routinely reading a book when his roommate Thabo just randomly wakes up from sleep and walks to the door with his eyes closed. A few seconds later, the sound of bottles smashing to the ground can be heard as Thabo bumps into the dustbin placed in the passage. Thabo has experienced one of his sleep-walking episodes again and you probably, just like Sipho does, wonder why people even sleepwalk.

What is sleepwalking?

Known in the medical field as somnambulism, sleepwalking is a behaviour disorder that makes affected individuals get up and walk around while asleep. This is sometimes due to other underlying sleeping disorders or simply because a child’s parent sleepwalked when they were younger indicating a possible genetic link.

According to Sleep Foundation, sleepwalking happens during non-REM (NREM) sleep, usually in stage III of the sleep cycle, which is also known as deep sleep. This usually happens for one to two hours after sleeping at night and episodes could last for a few seconds to an hour with most ending within ten minutes. It is more common in children than in adults as their wake and sleep system is still not fully matured. People often outgrow it before they reach their teens.

It’s important to note that, despite the name, there could be other actions that a person does besides walking, which still fall under the umbrella of sleepwalking. These could include running, waking up to get dressed or walking to the fridge, sitting up in bed with eyes opened, moving furniture around, climbing out of a window and in rare cases taking a leak in inappropriate places such as inside a wardrobe.

There are many causes which could include sleep deprivation, fever or illness, alcohol consumption or intake of drugs such as sleeping pills among others. Thabo, just like several other sleepwalkers (or somnambulists as they are also known), always looks at Sipho weirdly when he tells him about his latest episode as he never seems to remember any of it. Thabo and Sipho have been roommates for three years but Sipho still fears that someday his roomie could run into real danger while sleepwalking.

Dangers of sleepwalking

In extreme cases, sleepwalkers will get into a car and want to drive it while in deep sleep. Needless to mention, this could lead to a serious accident and even loss of life as driving requires uninterrupted attention and full consciousness. Sleepwalkers will sometimes walk out of the house and this could be dangerous if they live next to a busy road with cars passing by.

When Thabo is not attempting to climb out of the window, he sometimes even attempts to cook or use sharp objects, which is something that could put him and his roommate in danger. Sipho understands there’s something he could do to help and wonders what safety tips are out there.

Safety tips to protect sleepwalkers:

• Make sure all doors are locked at night and don’t leave the keys at the door.
• Install childproof locks on windows and doors.
• If your child sleepwalks, don’t allow them sleep in a top bunk bed.
• Keep heavy, sharp, or dangerous objects out of reach.
• Hide car keys if the sleepwalker has attempted to drive.
• Install gates on stairways to avoid falls.
• If episodes are persistent, seek medical help and advice.

As much as not all sleepwalking cases can be prevented, there are healthy sleep habits that Thabo himself could take to prevent sleepwalking:

• Consistent sleep and wake up times.
• Turn off phones, televisions and video games at least one hour before bedtime.
• Reduce alcohol and caffeine intake at night.
• Practise meditation and yoga to help reduce anxiety.
• Keep bedroom dark, cool and quiet.
• Medically treat other sleeping disorders such insomnia to help avoid interrupted sleep that may lead to sleep walking.

Sleepwalking is a dangerous disorder that could lead to a loss of life if not properly addressed and that’s Sipho’s worst nightmare. Though he understands that Thabo’s episodes don’t happen often, he’ll only sleep better at night when he knows his roommate is getting adequate support to deal with his disorder. Thabo needs to maintain healthy sleeping habits and seek medical treatment from a medical professional. If this is done, soon his episodes could be a thing of the past.

Have you ever wondered why we dream? To find out, read more here.


Tell us: Have you or someone you know ever sleepwalked? Tell us about it.