Whether after a move to a new home or while on the road, sleeping in a new environment is often problematic. You toss and turn, unable to sink into the deep sleep that your body craves.
Environmental conditions affect sleep in many ways — and that's never more true than when trying to get to sleep (or stay asleep) in a new bedroom or hotel room. Keep reading for more information about how a new environment impacts sleep, as well as some tips for getting over that first-night hurdle to sleep successfully wherever you are.
Almost every environmental condition you can think of may affect your sleep. Ambient temperature and the comfort of your bed and pillow impact your sleep, as do more internal environmental factors, such as what you ate before going to bed or the medications you're taking, not to mention that late-night cup of coffee.
Among the key environmental factors impacting sleep are light and noise. Your brain responds to the amount of light in a room by informing you if it's day or night — and consequently, whether it's time for sleep. Absence of light is one of the key signs that tells your brain and body to start winding down for sleep. In particular, the blue light emanating from televisions and electronic devices can disturb sleep cycles.
Noise is also key to wakefulness. High sound levels disturb sleep and even exacerbate stress hormones, which cause further sleep interruptions. The human brain is particularly susceptible to disturbance from intermittent sounds, which explains why your neighbor's dog or an ambulance passing by can jolt you out of sleep.
Your brain also plays a big role in that poor sleep you so often experience in a new environment. Scientists call the inability to sleep well in a new environment the "first-night effect." Sleep scientists at Brown University conducted an experiment in 2016 to learn more about this effect.
The scientists monitored the brains of people sleeping for several nights, playing different sounds into each ear to watch for the response on the different hemispheres of the brain. They found that people were much more alert and easy to wake on their first night of sleep in a new environment. They concluded that, just as in some animals, notably birds, part of the human brain stays alert when sleeping in a new place to protect against the unknown risks that may be lurking there. By the second night in the new environment, the brain starts to calm down.
So how do you cope when you're sleeping in a new environment? You may think there's no way to trick your brain, so it doesn't feel the need to stay half-awake to protect you, but actually, there are plenty of small steps you can take to encourage good sleep, even in an unfamiliar environment. Take a look at some of the things you can do, either in a hotel room or in a new home, to start to feel comfortable enough to sleep well.
Being in a new environment often means a new schedule as well — maybe your first night in a new dorm room is followed by the need to get up for an 8:00 a.m. class, or perhaps you treated yourself to a late night out on vacation. But you'll sleep better in a new environment if you keep to your regular sleep schedule, in essence tricking your brain into releasing melatonin and starting your sleep cycle as usual.
Your brain wants to stay hyper-alert on your first night in a new environment — so don't give it chemicals that encourage that alertness. When you're in a new environment, replace coffee, tea, and chocolate with a caffeine-free alternative to help calm your brain and your nervous system.
The blue light from your mobile device or laptop encourages your brain to stay awake — and the stress you might incur from getting an unexpectedly agitating email or text won't help either. Turn off your electronics 90 minutes before your planned bedtime to let your brain turn to thoughts of sleep.
When you're traveling, having your own pillow with you can help that first night in a new bed feel more familiar. It smells like home, it squishes like home, and it may trick your mind into feeling as if it's at home.
Since noise is one of the key environmental factors that keep you from sleeping well, especially in a new place, it just makes sense to try to block out that noise. With a well-fitting pair of foam earplugs firmly in place, your brain is less likely to spend the first night in a new environment waking up as it tries to interpret the danger factor of the new sounds it's hearing. If you're moving into a new home or have room in your luggage, you may also want to consider using a white noise machine to mask the unfamiliar sounds in your new sleeping environment. Alternatively, you can download a white noise app to your smartphone.
Light is another culprit in keeping you from sleeping, so try wearing a comfortable sleep mask to block light from reaching your eyes. Of course, if you already know your new environment comes with blackout curtains, this may be unnecessary, but it's best to be prepared.
Whatever you try to sleep in a new sleep environment, tricking your brain into feeling comfortable and safe goes a long way to helping you get the rest you need.
© 2021 American Sleep Association.