Healthy Sleeping Habits

The ‘First Night Effect’ Is Why You Sleep Like Crap the First Night You’re In a New Bed—Here’s How To Prep

Francesca Krempa

Photo: Stocksy/DANIL NEVSKY
After so much time spent quarantining and under lockdown, it tracks that you might not only be itching for a sense of normalcy, but also be itching for an adventure or a freaking break from the monotony. As folks get vaccinated in increasing numbers and start feeling comfortable with the prospect of traveling safely, many may look to plan that first post-quarantine vacation. Now, fast-forward to the first night of that long-awaited vacation, in a Pinterest-worthy hotel room: You’re tucked under a seriously cozy featherbed blanket and ready to get a good night’s sleep. And after an hour, when you’re still awake, you remain ready for that good night’s sleep. And the same goes for the next hour. And the next.

Sound familiar? Turns out, no matter how comfy a hotel room or Airbnb or friend’s new home may be, on that first night of being away from your normal sleep environment, getting solid shut-eye is pretty difficult to come by. In fact, research indicates that the “first night effect,” as it’s called in sleep and psychology communities, is a very real psychological mechanism that exists for purposes of self-protection against potential dangers and threats.

Kimberly Fenn, PhD, a cognitive neuroscientist and director of the Sleep and Learning Lab at Michigan State University, says that during a first night in a new environment, our brains hang out in an enhanced state of vigilance. When you sleep in a new environment, it makes sense that your natural alarm system would kick into high gear. You have no historical data to forecast what you should be expecting, so, being able to relax to an extent that allows you to sleep deeply is tougher to come by.

“The brain is more ready to wake up—and will wake up—to much smaller stimulation than when an individual sleeps in their habitual sleeping environment.” —Kimberly Fenn, PhD, cognitive neuroscientist

“Sleep is a state of reduced responsiveness to external stimuli, but it’s also a state in which humans are more vulnerable to predators,” Dr. Fenn says. So, whether we’re trying to snooze in a plush resort suite or on our friend’s couch, our brains will stay on high-alert that first night or two, in case anything happens. “The brain is more ready to wake up—and will wake up—to much smaller stimulation than when an individual sleeps in their habitual sleeping environment.”

While you can’t mitigate the existence of the first night effect, you can take measure to prepare for it so its impact feels less severe to you. So, as travel opens up and you resume planning that dream getaway that got pushed back due to the coronavirus, use the following three tips to prep for that initial night in a new bed.

3 ways to prep for the first night effect to minimize its rough effects.

1. Keep a consistent sleep schedule leading up to your trip

Maintaining a steady sleep schedule can be a challenge, but it’s also a top tip pros suggest for maintaining ongoing sleep health. And to maximize that first night of zzz’s in a new place (and minimize the implications of the first-night effect), Dr. Fenn recommends keeping a consistent sleep schedule for at least a week leading up to your travel plans.

“Your body learns to fall asleep and wake up at the same time each day, and this regular pattern will help you sleep better in a novel environment compared to an erratic sleep schedule,” she says. So, download a sleep app or set that bedtime alarm on your phone to help you make plans and stick to them.

Find out what it’s like to use $3,400 worth of technology to sleep better at night: 

2. Take note of time zones

Are you one of those people who gets serious jet lag? If so, be mindful of travel that crosses timezones, because jet lag layered on top of the first night effect doesn’t quite add up to relaxing vacation conditions. The good news is you can prepare leading up to your trip so jet lag isn’t as strong of an issue for you.

For example, if you’re traveling two hours east, and you typically go to bed at 11 p.m., start going to bed earlier and earlier a week prior to your trip. Even if it’s only 15 minutes earlier per night, helping your body adjust to the new time zone before you arrive to your destination can only help save you from jet lag compounding the struggles associated with the first night effect.

3. Prioritize sleep hygiene, especially on that first night

Having healthy sleep hygiene (or habits) is an easy way to mitigate restlessness that can accompany the first night effect.

To establish healthy sleep hygiene, Dr. Fenn recommends sleeping in a dark, cool room, so pay attention to the thermostat. (The optimal temperature for sleep is between 60°F and 68°F, FYI.)  Some other tips include investing in a pair of ear plugs or a white noise machine. Since our brains might be more sensitive to auditory stimuli in new places, having noise-reduction aids can help ensure you stay asleep when, say, the air conditioning kicks or your new neighbors get noisy. And last but not least, skip the afternoon coffee or nap—no matter how tempted you might be.

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