Cortical slow waves, the hallmark of NREM sleep, reflect near-synchronous OFF periods in cortical neurons. However, the mechanisms triggering such OFF periods are unclear, as there is little evidence for somatic inhibition. We studied cortical inhibitory interneurons that express somatostatin (SOM), because ~70% of them are Martinotti cells that target diffusely layer 1 and can block excitatory transmission presynaptically, at glutamatergic terminals, and postsynaptically, at apical dendrites, without inhibiting the soma. In freely moving mice, we show that SOM+ cells can fire immediately before slow waves and their optogenetic stimulation triggers neuronal OFF periods during sleep. Next, we show that chemogenetic activation of SOM+ cells increases slow wave activity (SWA), the slope of individual slow waves, and the duration of NREM sleep; whereas their chemogenetic inhibition decreases SWA and slow wave incidence without changing time spent asleep. By contrast, activation of parvalbumin+ (PV+) cells, the most numerous population of cortical inhibitory neurons, greatly decreases SWA and cortical firing. These results indicate that SOM+ cells, but not PV+ cells, are involved in the generation of sleep slow waves. Whether Martinotti cells are solely responsible for this effect, or are complemented by other classes of inhibitory neurons, remains to be investigated.