Falling asleep in an unfamiliar place can be difficult even for those who rarely struggle with sleeping well. Pair a strange bed in a new place with different sounds and smells and you may end up with a restless night.
Unfortunately, this situation often coincides with an inconvenient time to miss out on sleep, like while on vacation or a business trip. Good-quality sleep is vital to waking up feeling refreshed and energized, ready to get the best experience out of your time away from home.
Below we’ll explain why we tend to sleep poorly on the first night in a new place, and discuss some helpful tips to get a good night’s sleep despite being in an unfamiliar location.
The First-Night Effect
While you’re comfortably tucked into your hotel bed, wondering why you can’t fall asleep on the first night of vacation, consider this: sleeping poorly on the first night in a new place is so common it’s referred to as the first-night effect by medical professionals. You’re in good company if you struggle with sleeping well in a new place.
When performing overnight sleep studies, researchers realized their subjects slept so poorly during the first night, they often disregarded any data collected from the first night and begin the official study on the second night.
Subjects averaged 17 minutes to fall asleep on night one, compared with 10 minutes on the second night. It took most participants 20 minutes longer to enter REM sleep on the first night than the second, and wakefulness during the night measured over 30 minutes on the first night compared with 10 minutes during the second.
The scientific explanation of the first-night effect revolves around our built-in instinct to protect ourselves in a new environment. This study discovered that while sleeping in a new place, it’s not uncommon for one hemisphere of our brain to be extra vigilant, making sure our surroundings remain safe.
Due to this extra vigilance, we wake up more often than we normally would from noises, lighting variations, or minor movement if we’re sharing the bed with someone else.
This interrupted sleep cycle, called fragmented sleep, can lead to an unwanted spiral of bad sleep, daytime fatigue, and a general feeling of lethargy – certainly not the feelings we hope to associate with a vacation or work trip with a major presentation.
Compensating for this sleepiness by consuming more than your normal amount of caffeine, taking a nap late in the day, or drinking alcohol close to bedtime can worsen the problem. While these tactics may temporarily help, they won’t have a positive effect on sleeping well the second night away from home.
Several nights in a row of poor sleep can lead to sleep deprivation, lowering the brain’s ability to function and perform as it normally would, and negatively impacting the immune system.
Tips for Falling Asleep in an Unfamiliar Place
To help with the first-night effect, we’ve compiled a list of helpful tips that may help you get a good night’s sleep despite being in an unfamiliar place.
- Breathing Exercises: Slow, deep breaths may calm the body and mind when you’re feeling anxious in a new place. Simply focusing on breathing, rather than on your new surroundings, can be enough to ease into a feeling of sleepiness. This also promotes muscle relaxation and increases oxygen flow, which is helpful in preparing for sleep.
- Stick to Your Normal Bedtime Routine: Following the same bedtime routine can help signal to the brain that it’s time to sleep, even if the surroundings are unfamiliar. A bedtime routine includes heading to bed around the same time as you normally would and incorporating the same wind-down activities into getting ready for bed, such as showering or reading.
- Get Enough Exercise: As long as exercise isn’t too close to bedtime, staying active may help you fall asleep faster. Even better, if you’re able to exercise outdoors in natural sunlight, you can tire the body while helping to keep your circadian rhythms in sync, making you more likely to be able to fall asleep come bedtime.
- Pack a Sleep Toolkit: Earplugs can help block out unfamiliar noises that may cause you to wake up in the middle of the night. A sleep mask can also help by keeping out any unwanted light that may be present when sleeping away from home, like in a hostel or while camping outside.
- Utilize White Noise: White noise is soft, ambient, background noise that can help create a calm environment and muffles larger noises that may cause you to wake in the middle of the night. A white noise machine can be ideal while traveling and some brands even make portable sizes.
- Limit Screen Time: Cell phones, TVs, and other screens emit blue light, the brightest wavelength of light. When exposed to blue light, the body doesn’t produce enough melatonin, a natural hormone that regulates the sleep-wake pattern. At night, this can make it harder to feel sleepy when it’s time for bed.
- Avoid Excess Caffeine or Alcohol: Too much caffeine or alcohol can negatively affect sleep quality, causing difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep. Stick to the normal amount of caffeine you typically consume and avoid drinking alcohol before bedtime.
- Relax the Body and Mind: Taking a warm bath or shower or drinking tea can help the body and mind relax at night, better preparing for restful sleep.
Sleeping poorly or waking up often in a new place is common, especially on the first night while you’re still getting adjusted to your surroundings.
To help combat the first-night effect, be sure to take care of yourself during the day by getting some exercise and exposure to natural sunlight, and reduce your caffeine and alcohol consumption close to bedtime. Try to keep to a similar bedtime routine, and add in any elements that you find helpful to relax and feel calm, despite the unfamiliar environment.
Creating the perfect place to sleep and keeping it clean can take effort, but it’s worth it for the positive impact it can have on your sleep health. Follow the links below to learn more: