Sleep paralysis is when you wake up but feel like you can’t move. Shutterstock

Curious Kids: why are some people affected by sleep paralysis?

If you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, send it to curiouskids@theconversation.edu.au.


Why are some people affected by sleep paralysis? – Tess, age 13.


Falling asleep is a bit like flicking off a light switch. One moment we are awake, but then the switch is flicked and we fall asleep.

That’s how it’s supposed to work, anyway. But sometimes, the switch gets a bit “sticky” and the light flickers between being awake and asleep. This is what happens with sleep paralysis – when you wake up but feel like you can’t move.

To answer your question, you’re more likely to experience sleep paralysis if:

Many people experience sleep paralysis at some stage, and it’s usually first noticed in teenagers. It can affect men or women.

Overall, though, there’s still a lot scientists don’t know about sleep paralysis and why some people are more prone to it than others.

Here’s a bit about what we do know.


Read more: Curious Kids: Where do dreams come from?


Sleep paralysis can feel like something is sitting on you and stopping you from moving. Shutterstock

Our brain is half asleep

In the olden days, some people called sleep paralysis the “Night Hag” and said it felt like a spooky witch or demon was sitting on your chest. Now we know it is quite a common sleep problem or what doctors call a parasomnia, caused by a little brain hiccup. And thankfully, it usually doesn’t last very long.

With sleep paralysis, some parts of your brain are awake and still active but other parts are fast asleep.

The sleeping part is the section of the brain that tells the muscles to relax while we sleep so we don’t act out our dreams. Evolution probably gave us that trick because acting out dreams can be harmful to yourself or others (although this trick doesn’t always work and some people do act out their dreams).

Sleep paralysis can feel pretty strange and scary, at least until you realise what is happening.

Sleep paralysis often doesn’t need treatment

If you are unable to move or speak for a few seconds or minutes when falling asleep or waking up, then it is likely that you have what doctors call “isolated recurrent sleep paralysis”.

If you sometimes experience sleep paralysis, here are some things you can try at home:

  • make sure you get enough sleep
  • try to reduce stress in your life, especially just before bedtime
  • try a different sleeping position (especially if you sleep on your back)

See your doctor if sleep paralysis continually prevents you from getting a good night’s sleep.

Your doctor may ask about how you’re feeling, your health history and if your family has had sleep problems. They may tell you to go to a specialist sleep doctor who can investigate further.


Read more: Curious Kids: What happens in our bodies when we sleep?


Hello, curious kids! Have you got a question you’d like an expert to answer? Ask an adult to send your question to curiouskids@theconversation.edu.au