Why You Don’t Sleep As Well in a New Place — and What to Do About It

Man awaking from sleep
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A few months ago, I traveled to Sacramento to run a marathon. I booked myself a cozy and quiet Airbnb and arrived two days early so I had time to settle in before actually running my race.

After I arrived, I made myself comfortable in my new place, had a snack, watched some TV and then climbed into the comfortable bed to go to sleep. It was past my normal bedtime, I had no time zones to adjust to, and the race wasn’t for another day so I shouldn’t have had any pre-race jitters.

But, I just couldn’t sleep. I would start to doze off and then find myself wide awake. It was extremely frustrating.

What I experienced, while annoying, is completely common, according to Dr. Masako Tamaki, an assistant professor in the Department of Cognitive, Linguistic & Psychological Sciences at Brown University.

In 2016, she published a study in the journal "Current Biology" that describes what’s known as the “first-night effect” in human sleep research. When subjects sleep over in a lab for any kind of sleep study, they don’t sleep as well, because it’s a new environment. So researchers usually just throw out the first night’s data and only study what happens from the second night on.

Tamaki and other researchers studied this effect and found that when people sleep in a new place, their two brain hemispheres have different levels of activity, with one side staying more active, or sleeping less lightly.

They aren’t completely sure why yet, but the “less asleep” brain hemisphere was always on the left. That side was also more responsive to noise. But in later nights, the brain activities leveled off, so both sides of subjects’ brains generally slept to the same degree.

It suggested that in a new place, people are “monitoring their environment with their brain and are more likely to wake up to unusual sounds,” Tamaki said.

The reason could be that we are like animals and feel we need to protect ourselves when in a new environment, she said.

“It dates back to way ancient times when you might need to not be completely asleep to sense danger,” she said. While a new hotel room or Airbnb likely isn’t actually a dangerous place in need of constant monitoring, your brain doesn’t know that, and so you can’t fully sleep.

Tamaki said when she sleeps in a new place, particularly if she’s traveling for an important meeting or conference where she needs to focus, she tries to fly in two nights before.

“So my meeting is not contaminated by the first night effect,” she said.

If that’s not an option, she suggests spending a lot of time in the new room, getting comfortable there and bringing your own things from home so it doesn’t feel so unfamiliar.

That’s a tactic frequent traveler Patricia Hajifotiou practices. Because she leads tours around the world through her company The Olive Odysseys, she’s always sleeping in new places.

“It really can be the different beds, the different lighting, the different way the door unlocks or locks, where the bathroom is in relation to the bed, that affects our brain and causes it to be semi-alert all night, resulting in a bad night's sleep while we are on the road,” she said.

So when Hajifotiou travels, she brings a lavender sachet bag from home and puts it on her pillow in each hotel.

“This works in two ways,” she said. “One, it is a familiar sight and two, the smell is reassuringly familiar and helps my brain to settle down and get to sleep.”

Jeff Johns, who runs the adventure travel blog What Doesn't Suck, says sticking to the same nightly routine also helps him sleep.

“Whether the same order of brushing teeth, meditating, reading, or laying out your clothes, as long as you keep it the same no matter where you are you've already built in at least some actions that are a bit similar each night,” he said.

He also recommends white noise or ambient noise apps to cover up any unfamiliar sounds.

Lauren Juliff, a travel blogger at Never Ending Footsteps, used to always struggle with sleeping well whenever she was in a new place — a big problem for someone who travels all the time.

“When it takes a week for you to start sleeping better in new accommodation, but you’re changing hotels every seven days, it results in a serious amount of sleep deprivation,” she said.

Then, she came up with some methods to help her better sleep. She uses a small bottle of pillow mist to spray her bed linens. "The familiarity of the scent helps me to fall asleep more easily — it tricks my mind into thinking I’m still at home,” she said.

She also uses sleep headphones to listen to podcasts on a low volume, just like she does at home.

“Carrying this tradition over to my travels helps to increase that level of comfort, consistency, and familiarity,” she said. “I also believe that the act of covering my eyes and ears helps, because I can’t sense that I’m in a different place with different levels of light and sound.”

Michael Alexis, who works at the museum tour company Museum Hack, practices what he calls “the Blackout Method” for better sleep.

“I carry a sleep mask with me, and in a pinch will use a bandana or similar item for the same purpose,” he said. “I also have high-quality earplugs and use a white-noise app on my phone to block out disruptive noise like traffic and flight announcements.”

He also tries to control temperature, humidity, and stress. And, he has one more tip.

“I always stick a chair in front of the door, even in fancy hotels, as a "Home Alone" trap for any would-be intruders,” he said.

As for Dr. Masako Tamaki, the author of the sleep study, when all else fails, she has another method.

“I just gave up trying to sleep well the first night,” she said. Instead, she tries to go to bed a little earlier, making up for lack of quality sleep with more time at rest.

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