When Kaylie Cooper woke one morning to find the clean laundry pressed and folded in neat piles, for a moment she pondered whether the mythical ‘ironing fairy’ may actually exist.
But she quickly reasoned there was a more straightforward — and disconcerting — explanation. For Kaylie has been sleepwalking since childhood and had now added ironing to the list of activities she regularly engages in while asleep, with no recollection of doing so.
You’d be forgiven for thinking she might have indulged in a glass of something before bed that night, but Kaylie hadn’t touched a drop.
‘The first time I sleep-ironed was six years ago,’ says Kaylie, 33, a clinical support worker, who lives in Hertfordshire with husband Ben, 30, a builder, and is expecting their first baby.
‘I got up one morning long after Ben had left very early for work and discovered the ironing board was up in the living room, and there were piles of neatly ironed clothes.
When Kaylie Cooper (pictured) woke one morning to find the clean laundry pressed and folded in neat piles, for a moment she pondered whether the mythical ‘ironing fairy’ may actually exist
‘Terrifyingly, the iron was still switched on and how long it had been like that, who knows? Ben hadn’t been into the living room so hadn’t seen it. There was an element of amusement at what I’d done, but also realisation that I was lucky not to have burned myself or caused a fire. When I continued to sleep-iron, we had to take drastic action to protect ourselves.’
Sleepwalking, or somnambulism, is relatively common, particularly in children — one in six will experience a sleepwalking episode, and one in 50 adults.
It also tends to run in families. Up to 80 per cent of those who sleepwalk have a relative also with the disorder.
In 2011, a team of scientists at Washington University’s School of Medicine studied four generations of a family of sleepwalkers and analysed their DNA, concluding that a person with the sleepwalking gene has a 50 per cent chance of passing it on to their children.
It’s a complex behavioural disorder that originates in deep sleep, and results in the person getting up, walking around and performing complex tasks, all while fast asleep, with no recollection of what they have done when they wake.
The subject was brought to the fore recently when U.S. popstar Taylor Swift (pictured) revealed she’s a regular sleep-eater
Cases range from people simply sitting up in bed and talking — to disturbing examples of those who’ve driven long distances while asleep.
The subject was brought to the fore recently when U.S. popstar Taylor Swift revealed she’s a regular sleep-eater. Meanwhile, actress Jennifer Aniston is reportedly a sleepwalker.
Professor Kevin Morgan heads the sleep research centre at Loughborough University and explains that it comes down to neurology.
‘Why one person sleepwalks and another doesn’t is down to a neurotransmitter known as GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) — an amino acid produced in the brain,’ he says.
‘We rely on GABA to quieten the brain and central nervous system to guarantee sleep in different stages of the sleep cycle, and to keep us behaviourally inactive during the deeper phases.
‘But there are some people who — for some unknown reason — are less sensitive to GABA than others, which predisposes them to moving around during the deeper stages of their sleep when other mechanisms in the body aren’t keeping them still.
‘It’s easy to assume that some of these sleep behaviours are cognitive responses to dreams, but that’s not the case.
‘What we do know is that there’s an ecology that plays out in people with somnambulism, which tends to be linked to stress and anxiety.
‘And their sleep activities can reflect an individual’s propensities or over-rehearsed daytime behaviours. For example, if you’re a habitual snacker and can’t walk past the fridge without sticking your head in, you may do this in your sleep.’
This is certainly the case with Kaylie. She’s always rather enjoyed laundry-related housework.
‘I can’t stand dusting and cleaning, but I love folding freshly laundered and ironed clothes and putting them neatly away,’ she explains.
A sleepwalker since childhood, she says her mother would often wake to find her rummaging in the kitchen cupboards at night. She was in denial for years, until she met her husband eight years ago.
‘He’d say to me: ‘Do you realise you’re getting up in the night and getting things out of drawers and wardrobes and putting them into piles?’
‘I didn’t believe him but then he videoed me on his phone getting clothes out of the drawers at 2am, which is when I finally realised that he and my mum weren’t having me on. Suddenly, a lot of things made sense, not least the fact that I was always tired in the morning with no knowledge that I was up half the night.’
Concerned by her penchant for sleep-ironing, Kaylie saw her GP who said her antics were likely to be stress related, and suggested Prozac to help her feel calmer.
‘My sleepwalking episodes definitely tie in with stressful events such as moving house or jobs, but I didn’t like the sound of medication,’ Kaylie adds.
‘Instead, Ben and I decided to make our surroundings safer, putting the iron in a box in the bottom of a locked cupboard, and adding extra locks on our doors at home, worried that at some point I may venture out onto the street.’
Which, so far, seems to have done the job.
Fellow sleepwalker Hollie Hutchinson has another curious noctural habit that, although it doesn’t risk her burning the house down, does carry serious concerns. She sleep-shops! Often, in the dead of night, she will reach for her mobile phone and start ordering things — with no knowledge of what she’s done, until the parcel arrives a few days later.
Fellow sleepwalker Hollie Hutchinson has another curious noctural habit – she sleep-shops.
Her most expensive purchase was a £300 skydive in July 2014. ‘The first I knew of it was when I got an email confirmation the following morning which showed I’d bought the skydive at 2.20am,’ says Hollie, 34, a project manager who lives in Hull with her partner Jonathan Hall, 37, an IT program manager, and sons James, three, and Ted, two.
‘I hadn’t been out or had a drink the night before, and hadn’t even been talking about skydiving or ever wanted to do one. But I’ve been sleepwalking since I was a child so I quickly worked out what had happened.’
Hollie’s sleep-shopping doesn’t stop there. She’s bought everything from job lots of dog food — despite not having a dog — to 35 rolls of kitchen paper, and a 90-roll pack of toilet rolls. Then there was a pink canopy to go over a bed, which doesn’t match her decor, and the entire Harry Potter book collection for her Kindle, even though they’re not stories she’s interested in.
‘I’ve disabled the ‘buy now’ function on my Amazon account and stopped putting my phone on charge by my bed at night because I was obviously just reaching for it in my sleep and shopping away,’ she laughs.
‘It definitely coincides with periods of stress. The skydive purchase was in the run-up to my wedding, when lots of people were trying to influence my decisions. It’s as though sleep-shopping is a reaction to needing control.’
Like her fellow sleepwalkers, it’s a habit she’s had since a child. ‘My parents used to find me wandering around asleep. I’d take pictures off the walls and even woke up with the headboard from my single bed on my lap a few times.’
As for the pricy skydive, Hollie recalls: ‘I couldn’t get a refund so decided I might as well do it, even though the skydive centre was a three-hour drive away in Durham.’
‘It was exhilarating but freezing and wet. I must be a lot braver in my sleep. Luckily, my partner thinks my nocturnal habits are hilarious — although it’s part of the reason we don’t have a joint account.’
Zoe Newport’s night-time activities are equally baffling. The 26-year-old from Canterbury, Kent, is a sleep-binger. She will get up in the middle of the night, and devour vast amounts of food.
Zoe Newport’s night-time activities are equally baffling. The 26-year-old (pictured) from Canterbury, Kent, is a sleep-binger. She will get up in the middle of the night, and devour vast amounts of food
‘One morning I woke with a terrible stomach ache, then I spotted the 30 mini Bounty bar wrappers on the bedroom floor, and it all fell into place. Another night I downed six cartons of milk, and again couldn’t work out why I felt so queasy the next day, until I saw the empty packaging in the kitchen. It used to drive Mum nuts when I was living at home and she eventually put a lock on the fridge. She’d find me, eyes wide open but fast asleep. And there’d be no milk in the morning for breakfast.
‘Our dog once ate an entire packet of biscuits and she immediately blamed me!
‘I’ve even devoured an entire jar of pickled onions while asleep. The aftertaste the next morning gave the game away.
‘It’s no surprise I’ve put on 4st since my early 20s and I’m sure sleep-eating is a major factor.
‘Although I don’t have a lock on the fridge — yet — I try to keep treats in inconvenient places such as high cupboards and don’t buy more milk than I need.
‘I do suffer with anxiety and have disrupted sleep patterns because of it, so I’m guessing that could all tie in with my sleep-eating.’
Laura Davies’s sleepwalking habits have put her in serious danger, and are a constant worry for her husband, Steve.
Laura Davies’s (pictured) sleepwalking habits have put her in serious danger, and are a constant worry for her husband, Steve
The mum, from East Sussex, was just inches from death, or serious injury, when her husband found her hanging from their bedroom window, asleep.
She was adamant one of their children was missing outside.
‘Thank goodness he woke up when he did, because apparently he had to pull me back in to safety,’ says Laura, 37, who lives in East Sussex, with Steve, 38, who works for a bank, and their children aged ten, seven, and four.
‘My mum can remember me sleepwalking with my eyes wide open as a child, and warned Steve about it when we moved in together. On one occasion he woke to see me standing on one leg on the wooden bed end with my arms out like the Karate Kid, and another night he found me inside our wardrobe saying: ‘Yep, that’s my jumper, that’s my shirt, I must live here!’ Although I’ve never knowingly hurt myself while sleepwalking I do seem to have lots of bruises that I can’t account for.’
Convinced her sleepwalking has worsened and is linked to being overtired or anxious, Laura sought her GP’s opinion and was referred to a sleep centre.
‘They wanted to do a sleep study on me but I was nursing my first baby at the time and obviously didn’t want to be away from him overnight, so didn’t go ahead.’
Meanwhile, spare a thought for Nikki Whelan. Though not a sleepwalker herself, her husband Pete, 37, a theatre manager, has been amusing her for years with his nocturnal activities, none of which he can ever remember.
‘We’ve been together for 17 years and during that time he’s done so many bizarre things in his sleep, including getting changed into his work suit and swimming trunks —he was still wearing them when he woke up,’ says Nikki, 33, a face painter. They live in Kent with their daughter Lucie, four.
Spare a thought for Nikki Whelan (left). Though not a sleepwalker herself, her husband Pete (right), 37, a theatre manager, has been amusing her for years with his nocturnal activities, none of which he can ever remember
‘He once woke up cuddling a tin of chocolates that he’d got from the kitchen while sleepwalking after I forced him to join a slimming club, and has even woken with a saucepan on his head.
‘Pete’s a massive joker but he’d never mess about over something like this, and whatever he’s been up to in the night is as big a surprise to him as it is to me the next morning.
‘I’ve found empty chocolate biscuit wrappers in the kitchen and our bedroom after he’s sleep-eaten them, and he’s even sent text messages to people while fast asleep, including one to a friend, which read: ‘Frankenstein’s eaten all the biscuits!’
‘Even he didn’t know what that meant.’
Pete admits friends and family are always eager to hear about his latest legendary escapades.
‘It’s been going on since I was a child and once got up and changed into my school uniform while asleep,’ says Pete.
‘I was eight then and didn’t do it again until I was a teenager, and now it definitely seems to happen more if I’m stressed or tired.
‘I once woke up with a sock on my hand after having a dream that I was watching Avenue Q, a glove puppet musical, and I’ve also found the guitar from our Air Guitar game in bed with me.
‘I’ve never been to the doctor about it because I haven’t done anything in my sleep that could be dangerous.
‘Thankfully Nikki’s a deep sleeper so doesn’t tend to see me wandering around the bedroom, and we just laugh about it.’