While you were sleeping

Some of us do embarrassing things in our sleep. Here are common sleep-time activities you’d rather not tell others about and what you can do about them

Person walking while sleeping

Sharing a bed for most couples is a pleasurable experience, providing intimacy, comfort, and feelings of security, but what happens when your partner does things in his/her sleep that ruins your sleep. Or perhaps you are guilty of embarrassing sleep habits that can destroy your partner’s rest. Such habits are sleep thieves, they rob your slumber, leave either one or both tossing and turning in bed, and are certainly the culprit behind many a tiff between you and your sweetheart.

Parasomnias are a group of sleep disorders that can be embarrassing and cause uncomfortable for your bed partner. These include syndromes such as sleep walking, sleep talking, sleep terrors, sleep eating, bruxism, restless leg syndrome, periodic limb movement disorder, REM sleep behaviour disorder, and sleep-related penile erections.

Walking and talking in sleep: Although sleep walking, sleep talking, and sleep terrors are associated with children, they are also found in adults. They are characterised by a motor activity during a partial arousal from sleep. It’s difficult to wake up a person while s/he is in the midst of an episode and if they do wake up, they suffer from some disorientation. If you suffer from a parasomnia as an adult, it is often caused by sleep deprivation and lack of good sleep hygiene, such as following a regular bedtime schedule and avoiding caffeinated beverages and alcohol.

Treatment in adults may be by prescribed medication and/or psychotherapeutic intervention.

Woman eating in her sleepSleep eating

Remarkable as it sounds, some people have the habit of eating in their sleep. Patients have been known to eat entire bags of potato chips, raw pork chops, and cigarettes with partial or no awareness before morning. Using the bed as a restaurant isn’t often enjoyed by your partner.

Treatments may include medications, reducing stress, and undergoing psychotherapy. Consult an accredited sleep disorder centre in your area as most general physicians are not trained in sleep disorder medicine.

Teeth grinding

A relatively common disorder consisting of repetitive and sometimes violent teeth grinding during sleep, bruxism can be annoying and even scary for your bed partner. It could be caused due to genetics, jaw malformation, central nervous system dysfunction, and certain psychological disorders that are exacerbated by anxiety and stress.

Wearing dental devices, and muscle relaxation exercises, including hypnosis, proves helpful.


Almost all of us make jerking movements at sleep onset. These hypnagogic jerks [not referring to your bed partner] are often accompanied by sensations of falling, and are quite normal. And since the jerks are violent, they might even rouse you or your bed partner. Although usually not a problem, if these are a sleep impediment for either of you, consider sleeping on adjacent beds.

There are sleep disorders wherein jerking movements can be of longer duration and strength.

Moving limbs

Restless leg syndrome [RLS] is characterised by an irrepressible urge to move your limbs and is often accompanied by tingling and itching sensation that may be painful. By moving your legs, you can relieve the discomfort, at least temporarily. These movements, also characteristic of people with periodic limb movement disorder, disturb your ability to sleep at night and will typically rouse your partner. This drives couples into different bedrooms and will often put a severe strain on relationships. Medical treatments such as dopamine agents, benzodiazepines, opioids, and anticonvulsants, are used to alleviate or eliminate symptoms.


We experience REM sleep every 90 minutes and it can last from 9 – 60 minutes at a time. It involves muscle paralysis, and is the stage in which 85 per cent of our dreams occur. Memory consolidation also takes place during REM sleep, as do nightmares [and related yelling], which can awaken sleepers and subsequently their bed partners. Nightmares are often experienced as a result of the bedroom being excessively warm. To avoid having bad dreams, you need a quiet, dark and cool ambience. You also need to reduce stress and avoid eating spicy foods before bed time.

Weird actions

There is a rather rare syndrome, called REM sleep behaviour disorder [RSBD], which is marked by active movements during dreaming sleep, sometimes resulting in hitting of a bed partner, jumping from bed, running into walls, and crashing out of windows. It is most often seen in males over 70 years of age, and you certainly don’t want to share a bed with anyone suffering from this disorder. Treatment of RSBD by drugs such as clonazepam has often proven effective.


Women are often disturbed, if not shocked and amused, by noting penile erections in their male sleeping partners. This tumescence is a common byproduct of REM sleep, which occurs every 90 minutes. The erections may be completely unrelated to sex. Treatment is not warranted.

Sex in sleep

There is a newly discovered sleep disorder called sexomnia, wherein people engage in sexual activity in their sleep. This can range from loud sex talking to intercourse and orgasm.

Cases have been reported where people are making love while snoring, or having sex with unwilling people while completely asleep. Typically, people are completely unaware of their sleepsex behaviour and can be subjected to criminal charges without any motivation. Forced sex can lead to relationship distrust, guilt, shame, and pregnancy. Alcohol and sleep deprivation have been indicated as major triggers to unwanted sleepsex experiences. Treatment by medication such as benzodiazepine clonazepam has shown 90 per cent effectiveness in controlling sleepsex.

Sleep apnoea

It occurs when respiratory passages become too constricted during sleep and airflow is completely shutoff, causing breathing to stop for up to a minute or longer. Gasping for air, people awaken suddenly in order to resume breathing. This can happen up to 700 times a night, seriously disturbing both bed partners. Often sufferers of sleep apnoea are unaware of the raucous noise, which is more than just a case of loud snoring. People with this disorder should seek treatment because it can lead to fragmented sleep, and in severe cases, death.

Treatment involves wearing a CPAP [continuous positive airway pressure] machine during the night, which maintains steady airflow to open the respiratory passages. As the sound this machine makes may be irritating to a sleep partner, alternative options focus on strengthening the upper airway muscles so that they don’t collapse during the night. It has been reported in the British Journal of Medicine that playing the didgeridoo [an Australian aboriginal instrument] can be effective in mollifying sleep apnoea. Because sleep apnoea is most often observed in obese individuals because of excess fatty tissue in the neck, cutting down excess body weight is also recommended.


While more commonly seen in children, at least 2 per cent of adults report suffering from the embarrassing disorder of bedwetting. As this involuntary voiding of urine during the night can be humiliating, most people turn to behavioural therapy as a remedy.

Decreasing liquid intake in the afternoon and evening also can be effective in reducing the amount of urine produced during the night.

Also, bladder volume training is suggested to help increase the bladder capacities of bedwetters. This involves drinking lots of fluid throughout the day, and then waiting as long as possible to relieve yourself so that over time, the bladder capacity increases. Use of a moisture-sensitive mattress pad can also be used to condition the sleeper to awake before voiding occurs. And there are medications that help reduce enuresis.

Passing gas

You might have enjoyed a delectable dinner, but others around you don’t enjoy it much if you share it by passing gas at night. Vibration of your anal sphincter or your buttocks produces unwelcome noises and unpleasant smells, which disturb others, even in their sleep.

Although you do it unawares and can always blame it on your family dog sleeping near your bed later, you might want to avoid foods at dinner time that are high in polysaccharides, such as beans, dairy products, onions, garlic, cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts. Remedies include eating certain spices such as cumin, coriander, caraway, yoghurt, and medicinal activated charcoal tablets.

Other irksome habits

Habitual coughing and sneezing, night sweats and bad breath can disturb bed partners. If they aren’t resolved in a few days, medical counsel should be sought. Also, watching late night television or using iPads, cell phones, or playing computer games and surfing the web in the bedroom or on the bed can disturb your partner.

Using electronic gadgets within an hour of bedtime can affect your sleep. They emanate blue daylight spectrum lighting that blocks the secretion of melatonin in your brain, thereby delaying sleep onset. Also, partner disagreement over room temperature or the number of blankets preferred may disrupt sleep [as in the case of a famous American television couple, where the husband prefers to sleep under a heavy blanket while the wife prefers sleeping in nothing but her wedding ring]. Having frank discussions with your bed partner to seek solutions can often help resolve these discrepancies.

As it is most of us are sleep-deprived because of work and family pressures, environmental disturbances, and the sense that sleep is just not that important. And these embarrassing habits further affect our sleep. Consequences? Drowsiness, moodiness, irritability, anxiety, poor cognitive processing and diminished creativity.

Poor sleep also affects critical thinking and puts you at risk of hypertension, type-2 diabetes, obesity, and cancer. Instead of pushing these problems under the cover due to embarrassment, consult an expert about them to resolve them at the earliest so that both you and your partner can sleep in peace.

This was first published in the May 2012 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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James Maas
Dr. James B. Maas is a sleep educator/researcher who helped develop the Dr. Maas Sleep for Success line of pillows and comforters for United Feather and Down. He served for 48 years as professor, chair of Psychology and Weiss Presidential Fellow at Cornell University. He lectured about sleep to more than 65,000 undergraduates, several of whom are now sleep doctors. He is the author of New York Times Business Best Seller Power Sleep
Haley A Davis
Haley A Davis is a staff member of Sleep for Success, research assistant, and student at Cornell University.


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