We love to travel during the holidays and the thought of seeing new places and being away from home can be exciting. Many of us are able to travel now that COVID restrictions are lifting. However, for some, travel can prompt concerns about trying to get to sleep in an unfamiliar environment.
If you’ve ever had difficulty falling asleep in a hotel room or in a tent while camping; you are not alone. Sleep researchers have found that people often report the first night in a new place tends to be more restless and have labelled this the ‘first night effect’. This can be observed in campers, hotel guests, staying with friends, workers on Fly-In-Fly-Out schedules or attending a conference, and even those spending the first night in a new house. In fact, if you’ve ever had a multiple-night sleep study done, it’s entirely possible the sleep physician discarded the data from the first night due to the ‘first night effect’.
So what is going on? One answer comes from neuroimaging studies that find that during the first night in a new location the left hemisphere of our brain will be more active in order to monitor unfamiliar surroundings for potential threats. We can also see this sleep disturbance as the consequence of being away from familiar sleep cues – the ceiling fan set to just the right level, or the sounds of the dishwasher dutifully making sloshing noises in the darkened kitchen – all of which signal to the mind and body this is night time, time to sleep. Instead, we might have different sounds such as crickets chirping outside our tent or traffic honking beneath our hotel window.
The good news is that neuroimaging studies also find the left hemisphere tends to reduce activity to normal by the second night and there are steps that can be taken to improve disrupted sleep even in the presence of unfamiliar chirping or muffled honking.
So if you find that your sleep is often disturbed on the first night somewhere new:
Firstly, try to remind yourself – this is normal, my brain is a little more alert because it’s on the lookout, this bed will feel more familiar tomorrow night. Consciously bringing this thought to your awareness may reduce the impact of emotions like anxiety and frustration that are not conducive to sleep.
Take solace in the fact that lost sleep builds biological sleep pressure. Sleep pressure is a bit like ‘hunger’ for sleep and it helps you to sleep well. If your first night in a new place does indeed result in a shorter sleep, there will be an increased sleep pressure on the following night and the body tends to quickly catch up. Even if you do feel a little sleepier on the day following a ‘first night effect’ sleep, try to fully engage in the following day (no napping) so that when bedtime rolls around again the sleep drive is high.
Finally, take reasonable practical measures to make the sleep environment more familiar. You probably can’t replicate your bedroom entirely, but little things like wearing your favourite pyjamas, bringing your own pillowcase, or engaging in a similar wind down routine can make the transition that little bit more seamless.
If you find yourself concerned about sleep for an upcoming trip, these suggestions – paired with the realistic sleep expectations informed by the ‘first night effect’ – can help you transition into restful sleep when travelling for work or pleasure.