IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Disturbed slumbers? When sweet dreams turn to sleepwalking

TODAY's Tamron Hall shared a frightening experience: She woke up in the middle of the night and realized she had turned on her stove — in her sleep.
/ Source: TODAY

Tamron Hall had a recent frightening experience: She woke up in the middle of the night and realized she had turned on her stove. At first, she thought an intruder had broken in, but discovered she had put a pot on the stove while sleepwalking.

Viewers wrote in with similar stories, so TODAY invited Dr. Carol Ash, sleep director at Meridian Health, on the show Friday to explain just what’s behind sleepwalking and other sleep disorders.

What can trigger sleepwalking?

Anything that can disrupt your sleep.

“Often times, when your sleep is disrupted, if you’re stressed, these things will present themselves more frequently because it’s more likely the gears will get stuck in between transitions from sleep and wake,” Ash said.

Any abnormal behavior in your sleep, like sleepwalking, is called a parasomnia.

“You have two separate sets of circuits,” Ash said. “One set of gears for all the activities of wakefulness and one for sleep. And those gears can get stuck in the on and off position. Anything that you can do during wakefulness, any activity, can actually present itself in sleep.”

“But the conscious awareness of that process is still in the sleep stage,” she said. “You can imagine what you could get up in the middle of the night and do.”

What kinds of things can people do in their sleep?

One viewer, Jill Krelle, tweeted to Hall that she washed her hair with scalding water while sleepwalking, suffering severe burns.

“Some of these things can be funny,” Ash said. “I’ve had patients, that in the middle of the night, find themselves out on the front lawn in their underwear, so you want to make sure you always go to bed with clean underwear.”

“But you could get up and do dangerous things, because there isn’t conscious awareness of what you’re doing and you could really injure yourself while you’re trying to cook or drive,” she said. “There’s people that will even have sex while they’re asleep and they have no idea that they’re doing this.”

Is sleepwalking hereditary?

Yes, “it runs in families,” Ash said. “We believe there’s a genetic factor to it.”

What is best response to sleepwalking, night terrors?

Deal immediately with any issue that is dangerous and puts the child at risk of injury. But in general, kids may just need time to outgrow it.

“In children, typically they’ll grow out of it,” Ash said. “It’s just reassuring the parents that it’s OK.”

“If a child is up wandering around, you just want to gently coax them back to bed,” Ash said. “If you arouse them, they might be irritable and angry and that might not be a situation you want to find yourself in.”

Anything else?

Sticking to good habits can help minimize sleep problems. Common sense things like a regular schedule, a good diet and exercise can make a big difference.

Here’s to sweet dreams! contributor Lisa A. Flam is a news and lifestyles reporter in New York. Follow her on Twitter.