Why Do People Talk in Their Sleep? See the Science
When I was growing up, my mom had to warn her friends not to leave messages with me if they called in the morning. You see, I was a sleep talker. I’d answer the phone, have a lovely chat with her friends (so I’ve been told), hang up the phone, and roll back over in bed—all while being sound asleep, having no idea any conversation had occurred. My mom, well, she never got the message. While this type of situation is probably pretty rare, I’m certainly not alone. Up to two in three people talk in their sleep, and it’s very common in children and teenagers. 1 So, why do people talk in their sleep? What does talking in your sleep mean?
Sleep talking is also known as somniloquy (in medical terms). It’s considered a parasomnia (which just means an unusual behavior that happens during sleep), which also includes teeth grinding, night terrors, and sleepwalking.
Some people appear to have full conversations in their sleep, with themselves or others. Others only call out, mumble, laugh, cuss, whisper, groan, moan, or use incoherent language or gibberish. 2
Talking in our sleep is typically harmless, if somewhat embarrassing. It is more common for folks when they’re stressed out or don’t get enough sleep. It can, at times, also indicate a more concerning health condition or sleep disorder, but typically, the only side effects are disturbing or annoying others. (Sorry, Mom!)
Fortunately, it’s also typically short-lived, with most people talking for no more than 30 seconds, with most verbalizing for just a second or two. Though in some instances, people have been known to speak on and off throughout the night.
It can also interfere with sleep quality for others in the room, leading to daytime sleepiness. And most people have no idea they’re sleep talking, much less what they’re saying. They also tend to have no memory of what they’ve uttered, even when they’ve had full conversations. Thus, they could hurt the feelings of loved ones or otherwise negatively affect relationships.
So, Why Do People Talk in their Sleep?
Are people acting out their dreams? Maybe, maybe not. There’s no well-understood reason for sleep talking, though some sleep experts suggest it’s because the sleep/wake switch isn’t working well or is sloppy in some individuals.
Sometimes people talk while dreaming, but sleep talking can happen during any stage of sleep—during both REM (rapid eye movement) and non-REM sleep. If sleep talking occurs during the early, non-REM stages, it’s usually easier to understand.
Sleep talking can also be related to sleepwalking or sleep terrors, which are believed to be a mixed phase between being awake and asleep. Or, it could be related to when sleep is somehow disrupted or disturbed, such as by stress, a few too many cocktails, or (at least in my limited case), a ringing phone after staying up too late the previous night.
Increased stress, depression, daytime fatigue, illness (with fever), and certain medications have also been associated with talking in your sleep. There is some research that sleep talking is genetic, though not always. 3
While it’s typically considered more of a quirk than a disorder, sleep talking has also been associated with more serious illnesses, including Parkinson’s disease. For example, one study found people suffering from Parkinson’s were up to seven times more likely to have sleep behavior disorders. 2
Talking in your sleep could also be linked to health issues like sleep apnea, stress disorders (including PSTD), or an REM sleep behavior disorder. If you’re just chatting away happily, it’s likely not an issue. But if you’ve suddenly found yourself sleep talking, especially as an adult, and it’s accompanied by intense fear, nightmares, screaming, or violence, then it may be worth finding a sleep specialist or taking part in a sleep study in a laboratory.
Should You Try to Stop Sleep Talking?
Sure, talking in your sleep can be embarrassing, especially if you have no memory of what you said when you wake, but again, it’s typically harmless. Plus, since there’s no rock-solid understanding of why we talk in our sleep, there’s also little understanding of how to stop it.
One thing that may help, however, is simply practicing positive sleep hygiene. That includes:
- Sticking to a regular sleep schedule (even on weekends and holidays when possible).
- Preventing nighttime disruptions by closing blinds, leaving the phone in another room, etc.
- Limiting caffeine consumption during the day and avoiding caffeinated beverages for at least six hours before bed. 4
- Ensuring the bedroom is dark, quiet, and cool (around 60 to 67 degrees if possible).
- Creating a sleep space that feels comfortable and safe.
- Giving yourself time to power down at night by turning off screens, lowering lights, and getting quiet at least 30 minutes before it’s time to go to sleep.
- Relieving stress with gentle exercise, yoga, deep breathing, or meditation in the evening.
- Getting between seven and nine hours per night.
Exercising regularly is also helpful for supporting quality sleep. Intense exercise does keep some people awake, though. If that’s true for you, avoid exercise the three hours before bed. However, more gentle activities, such as a stroll, stretching session, or gentle yoga can be done shortly before bed and may help you sleep better.
Finally, a sleep journal may also help bring awareness to habits, experiences, or changes that increase sleep talking for you, so you can better reduce those disturbances.
For those who are suffering due to a roommate or partner who talks in their sleep, it can help to:
- Wear earplugs or headphones as you sleep.
- Use a white noise machine, fan, or another device to create soothing background sounds that drown out the chatter.
- Move to another room when your partner is especially talkative.
Despite old wives’ tales, sleep talkers typically don’t say anything worth analyzing or that are even interesting while asleep. They don’t reveal deep predictions or truths about themselves and their lives. Most of what they say is gibberish, so you’re better off enjoying your shuteye instead of trying to figure out what they’re talking about.
Sleep Talking: A Recap
If a friend or loved one mentions you talk in your sleep occasionally, there’s little to be concerned with. Because it has such minimal consequences in most situations, there’s little reason to make it a priority to stop.
If, however, you start doing so more frequently, more severely, or it’s accompanied by other symptoms, it could indicate a sleep disorder, that you’re under too much stress, or that you have a medical condition, such as sleep apnea. Fortunately, there are sleep specialists who may be able to help.