Almost all of us have at some point been told that we were talking in our sleep the night before. It can be a disturbing thing to hear. “Did I say anything embarrassing?” we might wonder, or, “Did I spill the beans?” There’s also the possibility that our words revealed some deep subconscious desire of which we are normally unaware. In any case, we are morbidly curious: “What did I say?”
Usually, nothing interesting. Studies have found that most sleep speeches are brief, nonsensical utterances lasting just one or two seconds rather than noteworthy ruminations.
Sleep talking, also known as somniloquy, may occur during both the REM (rapid eye movement) and non-REM sleep phases. When it happens during REM sleep — the stage during which we dream — it’s caused by “motor breakthrough” of dream speech: One’s mouth and vocal cords, usually inactive when we’re sleeping, briefly get switched on, and words spoken by one’s character in a dream are spoken out loud. Sleep talking may also occur during “transitory arousals,” when a sleeper becomes half-awake while transitioning from one stage of non-REM sleep to another. In both cases, it happens when certain aspects of wakefulness intrude during our sleep time, allowing us to talk (but preventing us from making much sense).
It’s hard to gauge how common it is for people to talk in their sleep, because we usually sleep through the experience, and (unless we’re screaming) so do our bedfellows. Estimates vary, but studies have found that almost every child while growing up probably delivers the occasional somniloquy, however, the behavior becomes less common as we age. Other types of parasomnia, such as sleepwalking and teeth grinding, follow the same pattern. Chronic sleep-talking in adulthood is considered to be a sleep disorder, and may result from stress and other factors.
Because sleep-talking occurs during momentarily overlapping states of consciousness, it usually lasts just one or two seconds. And even when it lasts for longer, and people listening to the sleep talker hope for some deep subconscious secrets to be disclosed, it is mostly gibberish. According to the National Sleep Foundation, science and the law both consider sleep speech not to be the product of a conscious or rational mind, and it is therefore inadmissible in court.
How is talking in your sleep treated?
It is a good idea to see a sleep specialist if your sleep talking occurs suddenly as an adult or if it involves intense fear, screaming, or violent actions. You might also consider seeing a doctor if unconscious chatter is interfering with your sleep — or that of your roommates.
If you think your child has sleep problems, make an appointment with your pediatrician.
A sleep specialist will ask you how long you’ve been talking in your sleep. You’ll have to ask your bed partner, roommate — even your parents — this question. Keep in mind, you may have started sleep talking in childhood.
There are no tests needed to diagnose sleep talking. However, your doctor may order tests, such as a sleep study or sleep recording (polysomnogram), if you have signs of another sleep disorder.
Sleep talking rarely requires treatment. However, severe sleep talking may be the result of another more serious sleep disorder or medical condition, which can be treated. Talk to your doctor about your treatment options.
How can someone reduce his or her amount of sleep talking?
There is no known way to reduce sleep talking. Avoiding stress and getting plenty of sleep might make you less likely to talk in your sleep.
Keeping a sleep diary can help identify your sleep patterns and may help your doctor find out if an underlying problem is causing your sleep talking. Keep a sleep diary for two weeks. Note the times you go to bed, when you think you fell asleep, and when you woke up. You’ll also want to write down the following:
- The medicines you take, and the time of day you take them
- What you drink each day and when, especially caffeinated drinks such as cola, tea, and coffee.
- When you exercise
Talking in your sleep can be a funny thing. Perhaps you chitchat unconsciously with unseen associates at the midnight hour. Or maybe a family member unknowingly carries on nightly conversations. We hope this article answered some of your questions if not all!