Things You Can’t Do While You Are Sleeping

Sleeping is a time for you to relax and for your body to restore itself. There are several things that people can do while sleeping, such as sleepwalking, sleep talking, and other actions that are considered parasomnia. But what are things that just can’t be done while you are sleeping?

Key takeaways:

What can’t you do in your sleep?

There is little research on what cannot be done while you sleep. It is generally believed that certain actions cannot function while asleep because your body goes into a type of paralysis mode during the deepest part of sleep. During this time, all of your voluntary muscles, including your hands, feet, arms, and legs, relax. The reason why this happens is not exactly known. However, this means that while you sleep, your body is incapable of doing some things.

Even though it is brief, sleep can be a complex thing. There are various phases of sleep, and you might go through each one more than once while you are asleep. You are less likely to be able to carry out automatic tasks while you are asleep the deeper your sleep stage.

You can’t sneeze in your sleep

Sneezing is an automatic reaction to clear the throat and nose of allergens. If something irritates your nose enough or if you have a condition that causes chronic sneezing, a sneeze can wake you up in the middle of the night. It is impossible to sneeze in the middle of the night and remain unconscious.

Your body will attempt to stop you from sneezing because it will wake you up, but it does not mean you will not sneeze. During the deepest part of your sleep, you may not even be aware that your nose is being tickled to sneeze. However, if your nose is tickled during the lighter stages of sleep, your body might wake you up to sneeze.

You can’t cough in your sleep

Coughing is another automatic reflex that sometimes our body does not have control over. We will naturally cough up anything that tickles our throat or gets swallowed "down the wrong tube." Coughing or choking in the middle of the night could be a sign of sleep apnea, where your airway becomes blocked while sleeping.

When you start coughing, though, your body wakes you up naturally. Though you might feel sleepy and forget, you will eventually awaken. During the deepest part of your sleep, you may not wake up to cough unless your body feels deprived of oxygen. Coughing is harder to stimulate while in a deep sleep than in a lighter sleep.

You can’t yawn in your sleep

Yawning is a reflex that can be done for a few reasons, including being sleepy. It is rare to yawn while you are sleeping, but it will typically happen during a lighter stage of sleep rather than a deeper sleep.

Yawning is a common indicator of fatigue that occurs just before going to sleep. Yawning during sleep could be a sign that you have sleep apnea. Because their sleep cycles are not as developed as an adult's, babies may yawn more often when they sleep than adults.

Other actions that are suppressed in your sleep

Sneezing, coughing, and yawning are not the only automatic reflexes that are suppressed during sleep. Your body controls many reflexes that are less likely to occur while you are sleeping. As with the other reflexes, the deeper you sleep, the less likely is that you are going to do it. Your body will naturally control its own responses to let you have a good night’s rest.

Other things you can’t do while sleeping include:

  • Thirst
  • Hunger
  • Urination
  • Deification

Your body naturally stifles these cravings when you are sleeping, so you can get a good night's sleep. If you frequently wake up in the middle of the night needing to urinate, it could indicate that you are not getting enough sleep or that you have sleep apnea or another condition. You avoid accidents while you sleep because your brain is still active during the night and helps regulate these processes.

Thirst and hunger should be suppressed during sleep as well. Generally, when hunger or thirst cause you to wake up in the middle of the night, it is because your brain is giving these things more importance than resting. This should not occur unless you are starving or thirsty. If you are getting enough food and liquids, but you are still feeling hungry or thirsty when you wake up in the middle of the night, there may be a problem.

How do sleep stages affect you?

The different sleep stages can affect whether you wake up or not to perform reflexive actions. There are four stages of sleep. The first three are considered a Non-Random Eye Movement (NREM) sleep, and the final fourth is a Random Eye Movement (REM) sleep.

NREM Stage 1The lightest sleep phase.
NREM Stage 2Slightly deeper sleep phase where your heart rate and body temperature decrease.
NREM Stage 3Deeper sleep phase, your body is more relaxed and starts to repair and fix things from your activity during the day.
REM StageThis sleep stage is where your deepest sleep occurs. It is also when you start dreaming. During this phase, your muscles are limp and inactive, preventing you from acting out your dreams unless you have parasomnia or other sleep conditions.

The earlier you are in your sleep stages, the more likely you will be able to perform these automatic responses while asleep. The deeper the sleep you are in, the less likely it is that you will end up doing anything in your sleep.

Differences in adults and children

Sleep patterns change and evolve as we grow from infants to adults. Sleep patterns may also vary from person to person. Children’s circadian rhythm is not as well regulated as their brains are still maturing. Because of a child’s underdeveloped brain, they are more likely not to control their sleep functions. So they are more likely to cough, sneeze, and yawn in their sleep. This is also the same reason why children are more likely to sleepwalk or wet the bed than adults are.

Compared to older children, babies have even less control over these things. Babies can yawn and sneeze while they sleep because of their shorter sleep cycles and immature brains.

There are many involuntary actions that are suppressed while you are sleeping. These actions are only suppressed and unlikely to occur, but it doesn’t mean that they absolutely won’t happen. If you are being woken up in the middle of the night by actions such as coughing, sneezing, yawning, or peeing frequently, you should speak with your healthcare provider to be evaluated further.

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