By Shelby Freedman Harris, Psy.D. for YouBeauty.com
Sleep talking (also know as "somniloquy") is a sleep disorder that involves unconscious talking when you're asleep. The presentation can vary greatly between people, with some spontaneously talking while others notice it happens when someone talks to them in their sleep. Sleep talking can range from gibberish, nonsensical mumbles and rants, to complicated and totally coherent statements.
Sleep talking can happen to anyone, though it does appear to be somewhat inherited and affect males and children more often than women. The most common triggers are sleep deprivation, alcohol and drug use, fever, increased stress, anxiety and depression. It is also seen as a symptom in the context of other sleep disorders: night terrors, confusional arousals (waking up in a confused state), sleepwalking, sleep apnea and REM behavior disorder.
Sleep talking can happen at any time during the night and during any stage of sleep. In the earlier part of the night, people tend to be more in the deeper stages of sleep (stage 3/4), and their brain is essentially turned off and repairing from the day's events. During this stage, sleep talking tends to sound more like mumbling or gibberish. Sleep becomes lighter as the night progresses, with our brain becoming very active, processing emotions and memories (REM sleep and sleep stages 1 and 2). During these sleep stages, sleep talking tends to be more understandable to a bed partner and can become a narrative.
Though it isn't physically harmful, sleep talking can be extremely embarrassing for people. It can also be a major annoyance to anyone nearby who is trying to sleep, even leading to insomnia in those who share the room. Patients who sleep talk may avoid sleeping around others for concern that it might disrupt someone else's sleep, and sleep talkers often worry about saying something while asleep that might be embarrassing or problematic.
Many people try to decode their sleep talking experiences, but the reality is that the content can either be completely random or vaguely linked to past or present experiences. As a result, trying to decode it may be impossible. Interesting fact: Since sleep talking happens outside of conscious awareness, it isn't even admissible in a court of law.
For most people, sleep talking is typically short-lived and doesn't require any treatment. If it is happening multiple times per week, disrupts a bed partner's sleep, or if you have fears of sleeping around others, talk with a sleep specialist to rule out any other underlying medical or psychiatric disorder that might cause or worsen the problem. If sleep talking starts after the age of 25, it can typically be seen along with other medical or psychiatric issues. In severe cases, sleep talking may be associated with nocturnal seizures.
Proper sleep hygiene (e.g. keeping a regular bed and wake time, avoiding alcohol and tobacco at night, avoiding caffeine from the afternoon onwards), obtaining a full night's sleep each and every night, and minimizing stress and anxiety are all helpful and can reduce sleep talking events. Although it usually doesn't require treatment beyond proper sleep hygiene, more severe cases of sleep talking can be helped by medications and/or psychotherapy.
Bed partners often report that silicone earplugs, a fan or a white noise machine can help reduce noise from the sleep talker. If the sleep talking is especially loud or frequent and disrupts a bed partner's sleep, it might be best to sleep in separate rooms until the sleep talking is under control. Sound sleep at night will lead to less friction between couples and boost everyone's mood.