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Why do people sleepwalk? The details you need to know and how to address it in your life.

It’s difficult to know how common sleepwalking is. In 2016, Helen Stallman and Mark Kohler conducted a systematic review of studies on sleepwalking. They explain there are many reasons measuring sleepwalking prevalence is difficult for scientists, including the fact that the behavior only occurs during sleep when someone is less likely to be observed, as well as the inability of sleepwalkers to remember their own sleepwalking episodes.

If you’re curious about sleepwalking, here’s what Dr. Michael Nadorff, associate professor of psychology at Mississippi State University and president-elect of the Society of Behavioral Sleep Medicine, has to share.

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A statue of a man sleepwalking in his underpants is surrounded by snow on the campus of Wellesley College, in Wellesley, Mass., Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014. The sculpture entitled "Sleepwalker" is part of an exhibit by sculptor Tony Matelli at the college's Davis Museum. (AP Photo/Steven Senne) ORG XMIT: MASR108

Why do people sleepwalk?

Sleepwalking, also called somnambulism, is more common in childhood, according to Nadorff. Most grow out of the behavior by the time they reach adulthood, he says.

Nardoff says most sleepwalking happens outside of the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep, where most dreams happen. A rare disorder called REM sleep behavior disorder can cause people to sleepwalk and act out their dreams during REM sleep.

How to stop sleepwalking

Nadorff says sleepwalking can be solved with medication, but he typically recommends a simple prevention strategy to many of his patients.

Many sleepwalkers habitually mobilize around the same time each night, according to Nadorff. If you can recruit a partner, family member or roommate to assist you in tracking your sleepwalking, you can determine whether you are routinely sleepwalking at the same time.

If that is the case, Nadorff recommends setting an alarm for approximately 30 minutes before the time you typically sleepwalk. “When the alarm goes off, turn it off and go back to sleep,” says. “This makes it so that when that time of night comes, you’re not in the stage of sleep that will lead you to sleepwalk.”

According to Nadorff, using this method for just a couple weeks before gradually decreasing the number of nights per week you use the alarm can eliminate sleepwalking entirely.

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What is REM sleep behavior disorder?

REM sleep behavior disorder is a more extreme parasomnia that can cause individuals to mobilize while they are dreaming. A 2010 study by Dr. Bradley Boeve says patients with REM sleep behavior disorder are more likely to exhibit simple or complex motor behavior while they are asleep and may appear to “act out their dreams."

Nadorff explains that sleep scientists believe the disorder comes from a problem with dopamine levels in the brain. For this reason, some who have REM sleep behavior disorder will also have Parkinson’s disease later in life.

Comedian Mike Birbiglia, who has been diagnosed with REM sleep behavior disorder, discusses the parasomnia at length in his stand-up comedy special "Sleepwalk With Me," which also has a feature film adaptation of the same name. Birbiglia now sleeps in a zippered sleeping bag and wears mittens, which prevent him from unzipping himself, as he describes in his later stand-up specials.

Should I wake up someone who is sleepwalking?

Typically, Nadorff advises against waking those who are sleepwalking. Because most sleepwalking occurs during deep, non-REM sleep, those who are woken up while sleepwalking may be confused, groggy and even frightened upon awakening.

For this reason, Nadorff says you should simply guide a sleepwalker back to bed without waking them, if possible — though he clarifies that anyone clearly putting themselves in danger while sleepwalking should be woken up in the interest of their safety.

A new study shows the unconscious habit of sleepwalking may actually be tied to genetics, be passed from parent to child, and that sleep terrors in early childhood often lead to sleepwalking in the future. © (courtesy)

Is sleepwalking dangerous?

While sleepwalking is not typically a concerning behavior, it can be dangerous, especially in cases of REM sleep behavior disorder.

For example, in his show, Birbiglia shares the story of how he once jumped out of a second-story window while staying at a La Quinta Inn in Walla Walla, Washington.

Those with REM sleep behavior disorder have also been known to accidentally harm those with whom they were sleeping.

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