Sleep talking, or somniloquy, can strike anyone at any age, but it is most prevalent among adult males and children. Children 3 to 10 years of age often sleep talk, while about 5 percent of adults sleep talk as well. Sleep talking is also thought to run in families.
Generally harmless, sleep talking is any monologue or dialogue a person has while asleep, whether it’s self-generated or in response to someone’s talking to the sleeper. The talk can last anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes, but most such conversations average about 30 seconds in length.
The cause or causes of sleep talking are considered to be stress, depression, fever, sleep deprivation, daytime drowsiness and alcohol use, according to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF). Sleep talking is also often associated with sleep disorders such as nightmares, confusional arousals, sleep apnea and REM sleep behavior disorder.
Sleep talking can be coherent or complete gibberish and not even spoken in the person’s native tongue. Just as often, sleep talking doesn’t carry the same voice and tone as the person would if speaking while awake. He or she can sound completely different.
The lighter the sleep, the more intelligent the sleep talking is. In sleep stages 1 and 2, the talking is more intelligible, while in stages 3 or 4, the talk might be restricted to moans and gibberish.
Courts have traditionally held that sleep talking is not admissible evidence in that it doesn’t necessarily convey the person’s “real” thoughts or emotions. The subject of sleep talk sometimes makes no sense and at other times might be related to events and persons from the past.
According to the NSF, adult-onset frequent sleep talking can be associated with a psychiatric disorder or with nocturnal seizures. Sleep talking associated with mental or other illness generally strikes only adults 25 years or older.
For the most part, however, sleep talking is completely harmless and is more of an embarrassment than anything else. And people who sleep alone will probably never realize they’ve been talking in their sleep unless they turn on a voice recorder before going to bed. Sleep talking does not generally arouse the person who is experiencing it.
Is it okay to engage in a conversation with a sleep talker? Generally, there’s no problem engaging in conversation with a sleep talker, nor is there any danger in waking the person up.
Sleep talking generally requires no treatment, but if it persists and is associated with night terrors, sleepwalking, confusional arousals or nocturnal seizures, then you need to discuss matters with your doctor and even seek a sleep-study evaluation to see what can be done to help you achieve more normal sleep patterns.