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People who talk out loud while they’re sleeping are experiencing a widespread sleep behavior called somniloquy.
By itself, sleep talking is generally harmless. However, it can disrupt sleep and be really annoying to a bed partner, especially since sleepytime rants are often highly negative and sometimes vulgar.
In some cases, talking in your sleep can be a sign of an underlying or more serious sleep disorder. If you’re having trouble sleeping or if someone else gets tired of your unconscious jabberings, you might want to seek help.
Read on to learn more about causes and treatments for sleep talking.
What is sleep talking?
Sleep talking, scientifically known as somniloquy, is one type of parasomnia––an undesired sleep pattern or abnormal behavior that occurs while a person is, asleep.
A sleep talker speaks out loud but is not always making sense. Some people talk in their sleep frequently, even several times a night (American Academy of Sleep Medicine, 2020).
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About 67% of adults say they’ve talked in their sleep at some point (Bjorvatn, 2010). Men tend to sleep talk more than women, and it’s also more common in children than adults (Arnulf, 2017; American Academy of Sleep Medicine, 2020).
While there are no symptoms of sleep talk per se, the things vocalized can serve as clues. People mumble, shout, whisper, and laugh in their sleep, with some 59% of the vocalizations being nonverbal. Much of what they say is gibberish.
The single most common understandable utterance is the word “no.” Ten percent of phrases people say while sleeping are profanities, with men more likely to curse than women (Arnulf, 2017).
The brains of sleep talkers seem to be functioning at a high level. Syntax and semantics are typically the same as during awake speech, and breaks in speech happen as though an entire conversation has occurred (Arnulf, 2017).
Sleep talking causes
Despite sleep talking being common, the scientific literature is dated and far from complete (Alfonsi, 2018).
There is evidence that people talk as they dream (Nielsen, 2010). But it’s not clear if sleep talking always involves verbalizing dreams. Talking in the middle of the night does seem to run in families, indicating genes play a role (Hublin, 2001).
Talking is not the only strange or mysterious parasomnia. Here are the percentages of people who report having done these other things at least once while sleeping (Bjorvatn, 2010):
- Injured themselves or others: 4%
- Eaten food: 5%
- Engaged in some sort of sexual act: 7%
- Sleepwalked: 22%
There’s some evidence that sleep talking can occur alongside sleepwalking or night terrors (Vaughn, 2021).
Sleep talking can occur during any of the stages of sleep, including the typical dream phase called rapid eye movement (REM). Like other sleep troubles, talking is more likely when sleep is disrupted, whether by emotional stress or drinking too much alcohol (Vaughn, 2021).
When to see a doctor or sleep specialist
By itself, sleep talking is little more than an annoyance to a partner. But it can be a symptom of an underlying sleep disorder or other health problem. For example, children who sleepwalk or talk in their sleep are more likely to have symptoms of depression and anxiety, or developmental and defiance problems (Laganière, 2018).
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If you suddenly start sleep talking later in life, if the frequency of episodes increases, or your sleep talk involves fear, screaming, or violent acts, it may be time to see a medical professional (American Academy of Sleep Medicine, 2020).
Treatments for sleep talking
Experts advise two ways to combat sleep talking. As mentioned above, addressing an underlying sleep disorder or other health condition that disrupts sleep may be helpful. Short of that, good sleep hygiene that promotes healthy sleep is recommended.
Daily physical activity is one of the best ways to foster good sleep at night (Dolezal, 2017). Eating a healthy diet can also help (Frank, 2017). Here are some other ways to alleviate many common sleep problems:
- Set a sleep schedule and stick to it.
- Limit your consumption of alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine.
- Make your bedroom a cool, quiet, and dark place (earplugs or white noise can help).
- Create a relaxing routine, perhaps with soothing music or a good book.
- Avoid stressful activities in the evening, including social media and work stuff.
- Turn off screens at least an hour before bedtime.
- Avoid naps.
If sleep talking doesn’t bother you and you otherwise sleep well during the day, it’s usually nothing to worry about. But if you sleep with someone else, do be careful what you say.
- Alfonsi V, D’Atri A, Scarpelli S, Mangiaruga A, De Gennaro L. (2019). Sleep talking: A viable access to mental processes during sleep. Sleep Medicine Reviews; 44:12-22. doi: 10.1016/j.smrv.2018.12.001. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30594004/
- American Academy of Sleep Medicine. (2020). What is sleep talking? Retrieved from https://sleepeducation.org/sleep-disorders/sleep-talking/
- Arnulf I, Uguccioni G, Gay F, Baldayrou E, Golmard JL, Gayraud F, Devevey A. (2017). What does the sleeping brain say? Syntax and semantics of sleep talking in healthy subjects and in parasomnia patients. Sleep; 40(11). doi: 10.1093/sleep/zsx159. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29029239/
- Bjorvatn B, Grønli J, Pallesen S. (2010). Prevalence of different parasomnias in the general population. Sleep Medicine; 11(10):1031-4. doi: 10.1016/j.sleep.2010.07.011. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21093361/
- Cleveland Clinic (2021) Talking in your sleep? Here’s what that could mean. Retrieved from https://health.clevelandclinic.org/talking-in-your-sleep-heres-what-that-could-mean/
- Dolezal BA, Neufeld EV, Boland DM, Martin JL, Cooper CB. (2017). Interrelationship between sleep and exercise: A systematic review. Advanced Preventative Medicine; 2017:1364387. doi: 10.1155/2017/1364387. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5385214/
- Frank S, Gonzalez K, Lee-Ang L, Young MC, Tamez M, Mattei J. (2017). Diet and sleep physiology: Public health and clinical implications. Frontiers in Neurology; 8:393. doi: 10.3389/fneur.2017.00393. Retrieved from https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fneur.2017.00393/full
- Hublin C, Kaprio J, Partinen M, Koskenvu M. (2001). Parasomnias: co-occurrence and genetics. Psychiatric Genetics; 11(2):65-70. doi: 10.1097/00041444-200106000-00002. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11525419/
- Laganière C, Gaudreau H, Pokhvisneva I, Atkinson L, Meaney M, Pennestri M. (2018). Sleepwalking and sleeptalking in children: Associations with emotional/behavioral problems and sleep quality. Sleep, 41(suppl_1): A293. doi: 10.1093/sleep/zsy061.788. Retrieved from https://academic.oup.com/sleep/article/41/suppl_1/A293/4988829
- Nielsen T, Svob C, Kuiken D. (2009). Dream-enacting behaviors in a normal population. Sleep; 32(12):1629-36. doi: 10.1093/sleep/32.12.1629. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20041599/
- UpToDate. (2021). Approach to abnormal movements and behaviors during sleep https://www.uptodate.com/contents/approach-to-abnormal-movements-and-behaviors-during-sleep
Felix Gussone is a physician, health journalist and a Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.