December 30, 2021
If you’ve ever heard your partner emphatically blurt out gibberish in the middle of the night, you probably know it can be equal parts jarring and hilarious. In some cases, talking in your sleep just seems like harmless chatter—but it also can be a bit disconcerting, if your bed partner starts screeching “Why are you doing this to me?” in a high-pitched voice. (Trust us, it’s terrifying.)
While experts and researchers have several theories as to why this happens, Abhinav Singh, M.D.—medical director at Indiana Sleep Center and member of the medical review panel for SleepFoundation.org—recently told SELF Magazine that the simplest explanation for sleep talking is that your sleep-wake switches aren’t working efficiently and may be a little sloppy.
Sleep talking, also known as “somniloquy” by sleep experts, can involve complete gibberish and mumbling or complicated monologues that contextually make sense. According to the Cleveland Clinic, somniloquy falls under a group of sleep disorders called parasomnias, which are unusual or undesirable experiences that disrupt your sleep.
Sleep talking occurs in all sleep states and stages, including rapid eye movement (REM) and non-REM sleep, with episodes ranging from isolated speech to full conversations without recall. This means you could be chatting it up at any time, according to a 2014 review published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.
That said, sleep talking is typically easier to understand when someone is in the early stages of sleep, including non-REM stages 1 and 2. In later parts of the sleep cycle, or non-REM stage 3 and REM sleep, sleep talking usually sounds more like moaning and groaning, according to the National Sleep Foundation.
At one time, it was considered a disorder, but sleep talking is now seen as more of a sleep quirk, which sometimes can be associated with sleep disturbances, psychiatrist and sleep specialist Alex Dimitriu, M.D., founder of Menlo Park Psychiatry & Sleep Medicine, explained during an interview with SELF. In fact, Dr. Dimitriu says, talking in your sleep is most often harmless and happens once or twice in a person’s life.
So, what are some of these unusual or undesirable talking events? Well, if you’re wondering how weird things can get, ask anyone who shares a bed with a sleep talker. They’ll most likely tell you it can get pretty bizarre. But don’t take our word for it. Check out what people are saying on Reddit:
- “My brother was coming out of a medical procedure, kind of half-awake, and said ‘Dr. Pepper is not a real doctor!’ and then went back to sleep.”
- “My ex once exclaimed, ‘Babies! Babies! Babies! They make me wanna be a better man.’”
- “One night I sat bolt upright and said to my wife, ‘This is why I’m not a sniper,’ and then laid back down and went straight back to snoring.”
- “My fiance opened her eyes, looked at me stone-faced and said, ‘Play a job when you eat so you can block out the sun,’ then rolled back over. Confused, I said, ‘What?’ She immediately repeated herself in a slightly annoyed tone. Again I said, ‘…what?’ To which she replied, ‘Ugh, never mind.’ I still wonder what she was trying to tell me.”
Anyone can experience sleep talking, but it’s more common in children, with about half of young kids chatting it up while sleeping, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM). An older study published in Sleep Medicine, found that up to 66% of people experience a sleep talking episode at some point in their life. However, the ongoing prevalence of sleep talking in adults is only around 5%, per the AASM.
Sleep talking often co-occurs with other sleep disturbances, such as sleep walking, teeth grinding, and nightmares, according to the National Sleep Foundation.
Some people may be more susceptible than others genetically. If any family members carry on at night, you might be more likely than someone without a family history to start talking in your sleep. Many parasomnias show genetic effects or familial clustering, but no specific genes are yet implicated, according to 2011 research published in the journal, Cell.
Just like the words you utter might not make sense, researchers aren’t exactly sure what causes someone to talk in their sleep. That said, sleep talking most likely means that a person is sleep-deprived.
Stress is another contributing factor, according to Dr. Dimitriu. This is most likely caused by disturbing the natural depth of your sleep. “Whenever something wakes you, even slightly, you are prone to do something strange—as you are half asleep—sleep talking is one of those things, and sleep walking is another,” he says. Certain medications (either sedating or stimulating), anxiety, or just being really tired can sometimes trigger an episode of sleep talking in some people but not in others, Dr. Dimitriu adds.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, depression, daytime drowsiness, alcohol, and fever can cause sleep talking, too. Underlying medical conditions could also cause sleep deprivation, leading to sleep talking. This includes sleep apnea, a sleep disorder where breathing is repeatedly interrupted during sleep.
The good news in all of this? “There is no danger to random isolated episodes of sleep talking,” Dr. Dimitriu says. However, if it begins to occur frequently, or there are other symptoms, such as insomnia, waking up several times per night, or being sleepy by day, he says it may be worth speaking with your doctor, and considering a sleep study. For most people, though, sleep talking is a short-lived phenomenon and no treatment is really necessary.
Research contact: @SELFmagazine