Is it really dangerous to wake sleepwalkers?

A STAFF REPORT FROM THE STRAIGHT DOPE SCIENCE ADVISORY BOARD

Dear Straight Dope:

Just wanted to know, why do people always say it's dangerous to wake a sleepwalker? I've heard this said a lot, most notably on a Honeymooners episode.

Ken replies:

According to everything I have been able to find, you are not, in fact, supposed to wake sleepwalkers–but it’s more for your benefit than theirs. Bruce A. Epstein, M.D., has a good discussion of sleepwalking at http://www.allkids.org/Epstein /Articles/Sleepwalking.html. Among other things he points out that:

  1. Sleepwalking is surprisingly common. Thirty percent of children between the ages of 5 and 12 have had at least one sleepwalking episode. (One does wonder how they arrive at statistics like this). Persistent sleepwalking occurs in 1% to 6% of kids.
  2. A typical sleepwalking episode occurs an hour or so after the child has gone to sleep. He or she sits up abruptly, eyes wide open but glassy and unseeing. If addressed the sleepwalker responds with mumbled, monosyllabic answers.
  3. A sleepwalker may perform fairly elaborate tasks, such as getting dressed, and may walk around the house, turning on lights, opening and shutting doors, etc. But the walker has only a vague awareness of his or her surroundings and "cannot tell the difference between their bedroom door and the front door or the toilet and the wastebasket."
  4. A sleepwalking episode may last from five to fifteen minutes. The walker remembers nothing in the morning.

Now to your question. The doctor writes:

When a parent finds their children sleepwalking, they should take the youngster by the elbow and gently lead them back to bed. The sleepwalking will usually end when the child returns to sleep. Parents should not try to awaken the child to stop the episodes. Sleepwalkers are difficult to awake and might become frightened and disoriented. If this happens, “do not attempt to touch them or lead them back to bed,” says Richard Ferber, M.D., director of the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Children’s Hospital, Boston. “Touching an upset sleepwalker may cause them to flail out violently, putting the parent in danger.” 

Dr. Epstein provides a list of precautions for parents of habitually sleepwalking children, including removing sharp objects and obstacles, putting gates at the top of stairs, locking up firearms, never letting the kid sleep in the top bunk, and putting a bell on the child’s door so you’ll know when another episode has started.

Or perhaps you might just read Epstein’s article to them, which will not only scare the bejeebers out of them, but probably prevent them from sleeping at all.

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.

STAFF REPORTS ARE WRITTEN BY THE STRAIGHT DOPE SCIENCE ADVISORY BOARD, CECIL'S ONLINE AUXILIARY. THOUGH THE SDSAB DOES ITS BEST, THESE COLUMNS ARE EDITED BY ED ZOTTI, NOT CECIL, SO ACCURACYWISE YOU'D BETTER KEEP YOUR FINGERS CROSSED.

Comment on this Column