How to survive sleeping with a sleep talker

 Do you or a loved one talk in your sleep? It’s a common sleep issue for many, experts say.

About 50% of children will talk in their sleep — and typically outgrow it — while only about 5% of adults are nighttime blabbermouths, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. However, about 60% to 65% of adults will experience at least one episode of nighttime speech during their lifetime, the academy said.

Sleep soliloquies can occur at any stage of sleep, not just in rapid eye movement (REM), the stage when dreams occur, experts say. These one-sided conversations are typically harmless and can include mumbled whispers, groans and nonsense words as well as vulgar language and outright yelling.

At that point, a bed partner may cease to view the chatter as amusing and start looking for ways to protect their own sleep, said sleep disorder specialist Dr. Carlos Schenck, a professor and senior staff psychiatrist at the Hennepin County Medical Center at the University of Minnesota.

“There are some things you, the bed partner, can do to save your sleep,” Schenck said. “But first make sure there are no hidden issues that might be causing the problem.”

Sleep talking, or somniloquy, can be connected to mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and anxiety. Medications to treat depression, and other mental health disorders, high blood pressure, seizures, asthma and, oddly, other sleep disorders can also cause sleep talking, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

“If your partner has never been a sleep talker and suddenly starts sleep talking after the age of 50, and it becomes louder and more frequent, then you really should reach out to your doctor for a neurological evaluation,” Schenck said. “It could be the first sign of a neurodegenerative disorder, such as Parkinson’s.”

Obstructive sleep apnea — a serious sleep disorder in which people stop breathing for 10 seconds to two minutes 30 or more times an hour — can also cause the brain to partially wake and begin to jabber. Bed partners are often the first to notice sleep apnea, observing a total cessation of breathing, followed by a gasp of air.

Acid reflux or it’s more serious cousin, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), can also create a partial arousal that can trigger the brain into speech, Schenck said.

Tips for handling sleep talking

A white noise generator or loud fan is a great defense, said Jennifer Mundt, assistant professor of sleep medicine, psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.

“Earplugs or comfortable noise-canceling headphones may also help,” she said. Earplugs come in several forms: expandable foam, pre-molded versions and custom molded, which are created to precisely fit the shape and size of the ear canal.

“Then try to go to sleep before the person who sleep talks so that you are not easily awakened. That’s where a white noise generator or loud fan can be very, very helpful,” Schenck said.

Now, it’s time for some detective work. Work with your bed partner to discover triggers for their sleep talking, such as stress, the use of alcohol, being sleep-deprived, not sticking to a normal sleep schedule or even sleeping in a new environment, experts say.

For some people, something as benign as being on vacation or sleeping somewhere new can cause an episode, Mundt said.

“At these times your brain is a little more vigilant because you’re in a new environment, and that means you’re more likely to have this partial awakening, where one part of the brain is awake and the other part is asleep,” Mundt said.

In the end, it’s the responsibility of the person who sleep talks to take ownership of their disorder and find solutions to quit disturbing a partner’s sleep, Schenck said.

“The person who is sleep talking has to be very considerate of the partner,” Schenck said. “If sleeping on your back makes it worse, then get a nightshirt where you can put a tennis ball in the back of the shirt so you can’t sleep on your back.”

And if drinking alcohol is a trigger, that should be stopped or diminished as well, he said. “Cut out alcohol so you can share your consideration for the bed partner who is disturbed by your sleep talking.”

What causes sleep talking?

Sleep talking is a parasomnia, in the same category as sleep terrors, sleep eating, sleep paralysis and sleep sex. All are disorders of arousal, in which part of the brain wakes while the rest sleeps.

Parasomnias often run in families, and you are more likely to have one if you had one as a child. If more than one first-degree relative has a parasomnia, then it’s much more likely that childhood sleep behaviors will remain or reoccur as an adult, Schenck said.

“There’s no way to predict that you will develop a parasomnia. Some people who have sleep talking or walking as children do return to the behavior as adults, but many others do not,” he said.

Sleep talking often occurs spontaneously “in a rather unpredictable fashion,” Schenck said, although at times it can occur after fevers or emotional stress. However, “sleep talking should be differentiated from catathrenia, a sleep-related breathing disorder typically characterized by moaning during sleep.”

Many people who talk in their sleep do not need medical treatment, but if the disorder is severe, there are treatments such as cognitive behavior therapy, designed to help identify and reduce stress triggers and negative thoughts about sleep.

Good sleep hygiene, such as going to bed and getting up at the same time each day, avoiding caffeine after 3pm and eliminating light from the bedroom, including screens such as smartphones, laptops and televisions can also help.