Regardless of why you need this, the key to touching someone in their sleep without waking them up lies in three things: you need to move slowly, avoid direct contact with their skin, and apply gentle pressure in case you need to move them to the side or away from you.
Now, let’s take a look at several scenarios in detail and define when the person is actually ready to be touched so you can do it successfully.
How to Determine If the Person Can Be Touched?
Touch, like the other senses, doesn’t switch off completely during sleep. It remains active so that you could wake up faster if an emergency occurs.
However, it’s still possible to keep someone asleep while touching them. You just need to determine the stage of sleep they’re in.
And no, you won’t need lab equipment for that.
Our sleep cycle consists of two main stages — non-REM and REM sleep. REM stands for ‘rapid eye movement’ because our eyes move rapidly under the eyelids during this stage, while during the non-REM stage, our eyes — as well as the rest of the body — mostly remain motionless.
But it’s not the only difference.
The non-REM stage is divided into three sub-stages: light, moderate, and deep sleep. And the deep sleep is exactly what you’re looking for if you want to touch or move someone.
During deep sleep, our neural activity is at its lowest — the body charges and repairs itself and it doesn’t need any distractions. That’s why if you accidentally wake a person up from deep sleep, they may feel disoriented and groggy. But usually, people aren’t easily awakened during deep sleep.
Other signs of non-REM deep sleep include:
- slow and deep breathing;
- no motor reflexes: you can try lifting the person’s hand (but not too high) and drop it to see that;
- relaxed body: the person isn’t twitching or trying to grasp something — as mentioned above, they remain motionless.
On the other hand, REM sleep is the stage in which we dream. Memory consolidation and other important cognitive processes also occur during REM sleep, so the brain activity becomes pretty similar to that of the wakefulness state (1). Besides, the person’s breathing rate may start to change from slow to fast and shallow, which is the sign that they’re dreaming.
During this stage, a person will wake up more easily if touched, but they also won’t feel groggy after that.
How to Touch Someone in Their Sleep: Different Situations Explained
I’m sure most of us have experienced the need to touch someone in their sleep without waking them up. But the scenarios could be different. For example, you might’ve needed to check your baby’s temperature when they were sick. Or, your spouse might’ve hugged you so tightly that you had to move them away to breathe.
So, let me share some recommendations on how to touch a person without waking them up in all common situations.
Babies can spend up to 50% of their time asleep in the REM stage (2), so they’re pretty sensitive sleepers. That’s why you need to be extra careful when touching them.
Because we all know what happens next.
But don’t worry, keeping a child asleep is easier than it might seem.
Here’s what you need to do:
- Check if they are in a deep sleep stage. If any eye movement is absent and the baby’s breath is deep and slow, you may proceed.
- Go slowly. If you need to check the temperature, gently touch their forehead and gradually increase the pressure. Do not make sharp movements. If you need to transfer the baby to the crib, gently slide one hand under the head and place the other hand under the pelvis to lift the baby.
- Learn to calm the baby down fast. If you feel like your baby is starting to wake up, you can rub their tummy until they are asleep again. Or, if they have adopted the self-soothing skill, you can transfer the baby to the crib or wherever you need to, and let them calm down on their own.
If you share a bed with a restless sleeper, you may have seen them migrate across the mattress and push you at the very edge of the bed. Or, you may be lucky to have a hugging lover by your side who might just smother you by entwining around your body.
The good thing is, you can easily claim your space back in both scenarios.
- Use gravity. Typically, when a person sleeps on their side, they tend to twist their upper body a bit, and you can use this in your favor. Gently push the person towards their natural inclination so that it will feel more organic for them to switch to another position without waking up.
- Apply gentle pressure. As with babies, you need to start slowly and increase the pressure gradually. For example, place your hand above your partner’s and slowly push it away. At some point, they may feel this and remove the hand without waking up, as the impact isn’t so sharp and frightening.
- Move one step at a time. If your partner’s body is wrapped around you like a blanket, try to free yourself by moving one extremity at a time. Of course, it may take more time, but this way you surely won’t wake them up.
The reason why your partner moves closer to you during sleep may be because they feel cold. In this case, investing in an additional blanket can solve the problem.
If you work in healthcare, you may occasionally need to touch your patients to check their vitals. Doing this without waking them up can be harder than touching your partner or kid because sick people tend to have more sensitive sleep.
However, a similar algorithm applies here as well. First, you have to check if they’re in the deep sleep stage. Then, by applying gentle pressure — on their wrist for pulse measuring, or on their forehead to check the temperature — perform the needed procedure. Once you’re done, remove the hand slowly and gradually so that you don’t disturb the patient.
Do you have your own dos and don’ts on how to touch someone without waking them up? Feel free to share below!
- National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (Aug 13, 2019), Retrieved from https://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/Patient-Caregiver-Education/Understanding-Sleep
- National Sleep Foundation, Retrieved from https://www.sleepfoundation.org/articles/children-and-sleep
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