Sleep Talking: What Does It All Mean?

We humans value our power of speech. We say that words have power. Words have consequences. And yet the truth is that most of us have a hard time understanding each other when we speak. Anybody who is or has been married knows what I’m talking about. We search for meaning in the things other people say that the speaker never intended. This is especially true, for some reason, with sleep talking.

The aptly-named 1980’s New Wave band The Romantics seemed to think so. They even wrote a song about it.

When you close your eyes and you go to sleep
And it’s down to the sound of a heartbeat
I can hear the things that you’re dreaming about
When you open up your heart and the truth comes out

You tell me that you want me
You tell me that you need me
You tell me that you love me
And I know that I’m right
‘Cause I hear it in the night

I hear the secrets that you keep
When you’re talking in your sleep
I hear the secrets that you keep
When you’re talking in your sleep

What’s So Special About Sleep Talking?

I have bad news for The Romantics. The truth does not really come out. Most of the talking that people do in their sleep is gibberish. If people do make sense when they speak, the words almost never have any meaning that is useful to the wide-awake listener. Courts won’t admit testimony about utterances spoken during sleep talking episodes.

Sleep talking, or “somniloquy” as it is called officially, is another type of parasomnia, in the same class as sleepwalking and sleep eating. It is more common in males, and of course, in children.

Sleep talking is very common. The highest estimates I found put the number at 60% of all individuals at some point during life. Like many of these sleep behaviors, sleep talking tends to run in families. If one or both parents sleep-talked, the chances are greater that the child will sleep talk as well.

I know that I’m right, ’cause I hear it in the night

The triggers for sleep talking are obscure, but we know some factors that make it more likely to happen.

  • Sleep deprivation: Exhausted children who fall into very deep Stage IV sleep can have sudden partial awakenings which will cause them to talk in their sleep.
  • Stress: Even though we do not believe that sleep talking and the other parasomnias signal psychic distress, we know that stressed people are more likely to do things in their sleep.
  • Sleep apnea or other disruptions of the sleep cycle will make sleep talking more likely.
  • Medications like antihistamines are known triggers as well.

You tell me that you love me

sleep talking 3
What shall we talk about?

Is there anything parents need to worry about? If the sleep-talker shares a room, and annoys his roommate, this may present a problem. Some parents have tried a white noise machine to drown out the sound of the human speaker. Others have tried ear plugs.

In adults, there have been reports of people who have awakened exhausted by all the speaking they have done in the night. I suspect these cases are very rare and probably do not affect children.

I can hear the things that you’re dreaming about

Much sleep talking occurs during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. In these cases, it’s quite possible that the sleep talker’s speech might be related to his dreams. There are no good studies to back up this claim. However, there are now smart phone apps designed to record sleep talking. Reviewers  did not say specifically that they remembered dreaming about what they recorded themselves saying. It’s more useful for amusement purposes, and to self-monitor one’s own snoring!

The bottom line is that sleep talking is absolutely nothing to worry about, and doesn’t require any therapy. If, on the other hand, there is an underlying sleep disturbance that is leading to this behavior, I can help you sort through it. Feel free to contact me!

I’ll let The Romantics take us home.

Sleepwalking in Children

True story: When I was 8 or 9 years old, I had a sleepover at the home of my former next-door neighbor. His family had moved far away, to a town I had never even heard of. When my mother dropped me off at my friend’s new home, I found myself out in farm country for the first time, miles from anywhere. My friend had a new Great Dane whose way of playing was to chase you and knock you down. The family was Italian, so dinner was fantastic.. and huge. The only problem was that the family rule was that I had to finish everything on my plate. I ate way more than I wanted to. The next morning, my friend’s mother told me I had wandered all throughout the house and even had a fairly long conversation with her. I had no recollection of any of this. I had been sleepwalking.

What is Sleepwalking?

By definition, a person who walks in her sleep is unconscious. Sleepwalking (also called “sonambulism“) occurs most often 2-4 hours after falling asleep. Children are more prone to it than adults because of the peculiarities of children’s sleep cycles.

Sleep is divided into 5 stages, I-IV, and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Stage IV is the deepest level. In children, stage IV sleep is much deeper than in adults. It is almost impossible to rouse a child from stage IV sleep. Normally, a person’s sleep stage rises fairly rapidly from deep sleep to Stage I and REM sleep, the lighter stages. In some children, the rise out of deep sleep is only partial, leaving them in a state that is suspended somewhere between asleep and awake. It is during these “sudden partial awakenings” that sleepwalking occurs.

Parasomnias

Sleepwalking is one of a number of sleep-related behaviors that occurs because of sudden partial awakenings. Sleep-talking, sleep-eating, restless leg syndrome, and night terrors are also in this group. Collectively these behaviors are called “parasomnias“. Literally “things that happen with sleep”. It’s very common for people who sleep walk to engage in these other sleep disturbances as well. Sometimes they continue into adulthood.

What Causes Sleepwalking?

Even though sleepwalking has something to do with children’s sleep cycles, we know that not all children sleepwalk. It happens in somewhere between 1-15% of children. Here are factors make it more common in some children.sleepwalking 3

  • Genetics: A certain amount of sleepwalking (no one knows how much) runs in families. If one or both parents sleepwalked as children, their child is more likely to do it, compared to the general population.
  • Sleep Deprivation: We believe that exhausted children sleep more deeply than they do normally. The deeper you sleep, the more likely you are to have sudden partial awakenings, as opposed to a nice smooth cycle between Stage IV and REM sleep.
  • Chaotic Sleep: Children who don’t have regular sleep and nap hours tend to have disrupted sleep cycles. These kids as well are more likely to sleepwalk.
  • Stress: Like sleeping in unusual environments or overeating. This probably had a lot to do with my sleepwalking adventure at my friend’s house.
  • Illness: Sleepwalking is more common in children who have fevers or who are otherwise ill.
  • Medication: Certain drugs, including sleeping medications (!), are associated with parasomnias like sleepwalking.

Things Typical Sleepwalkers Do

There are some things sleepwalkers do that can help parents figure out what is going on with the child. These behaviors may appear strange, even alarming. But they are quite normal .sleepwalking 4

  • Sleeptalking: As my friend’s mother reported, I had quite a long conversation. But she also told me that I made no sense and did not respond directly. This is pretty typical of sleepwalkers.
  • Sit up and make repeated motions: This type is on the spectrum of sleepwalking. We believe that babies who cannot yet walk may sit up in their sleep. Parents may not even be aware that the baby is doing this. Or if they do observe it, they might not think very much of it.
  • Pee in inappropriate places: Such as shoes or closets. This is probably because of the nature of the confusion that happens during partial awakenings. It’s very important to recognize that sleepwalkers do not do this on purpose!
  • Perform routine behaviors:  such as opening and closing doors.

How to Manage Sleepwalking 

The most important thing to do is to keep the child safe. Most sleepwalking is harmless. However some sleepwalkers will open doors and even try to leave the house. I recommend keeping doors to dangerous areas locked, or install alarms on these doors. You should install (or re-install) gates at the tops of stairs if you have a sleepwalker. Any sharp or breakable objects should be stored safely before bedtime. Some experts even recommend turning down the hot water temperature if possible, to prevent accidental burns. If you encounter your little sleepwalker in the night, gently turn her around and lead her back to bed. I do not recommend trying to wake her up. You probably will not succeed if you try. And if you do succeed, you may frighten or confuse the child.

I and other sleep coaches also recommend avoiding talking about the event in the morning. This is a mistake my friend’s mother made. It can only embarrass the child, or worse, cause her to believe that there is something wrong with her. Suffice it to say is that the event I described at the beginning of this article happened 45 years ago and I still remember it. Please avoid the temptation to tell the child about he sleepwalking!

Can Sleepwalking Be Prevented?

Probably not. Most children grow out of their sleepwalking, but that is small comfort while the child is still doing it! Fortunately, there are some things you can do to reduce the number of episodes.

  • Avoid sleep-deprivation: The better rested the child, the less likely they are to sleepwalk. Moving bedtime earlier works well for some sleepwalkers.
  • Keep to a routine: Consistency, consistency, consistency! The more regular and predictable the child’s day, the less likely they are to disrupt their sleep cycles.
  • Relaxation and Quiet: Make sure the bedtime routine is calm, soothing, and quiet. Some experts recommend installing a white noise machine if the child is easily awakened.
  • Dietary Changes: Avoid caffeine and sugar before bedtime. Also limit the amount of fluids that the sleepwalker drinks. A full bladder tends to stimulate sleepwalking!

If you have any concerns that there may be something else more serious going on with your child, always seek the advice of a pediatrician. If you’ve done that, and you still need help with your sleepwalker, contact me. I’d be glad to help you!