Healthy Mind

How To Fall Asleep Faster in a New Environment—And Snooze More Soundly After You’ve Dozed Off

Erica Sloan

Stocksy/BONNINSTUDIO
Sleeping well hinges largely on following a routine: We function in alignment with a natural circadian rhythm (or 24-hour sleep-wake schedule); we have nighttime rituals; and many of us even track our sleep cycles. Anything that throws a wrench in that regularity can derail our sleep—and that can include a new environment. Whether you’re on vacation, at a friend or family member’s house, or just moved into a new home, figuring out how to get great quality sleep in a new place often comes down to re-establishing a familiar routine, and taking steps to ensure your new sleep environment is as sleep-promoting as possible.

To backtrack a bit, there's scientific evidence to support the notion that new sleeping environments can be tough for the body to get used to. In particular, the first night in a new place often brings, at best, fitful sleep, and at worst, no sleep at all, as a result of a phenomenon called the first-night effect. During the first night sleeping in a new place, about half of the brain goes fully asleep, while the other half remains alert, continuing to scan the environment for safety issues, says Michael Breus, PhD, a sleep expert and Oura sleep advisor.

Because sleep is a vulnerable state, and your brain doesn’t yet know that sleeping in this new place is safe, the first-night effect acts as a protective mechanism, allowing you to be more easily aroused, should something go wrong, says Ellen Wermter, board-certified family nurse practitioner and Better Sleep Council spokesperson. With that in mind, even if you are able to fall asleep in a new place, you may not experience the deeper stages of sleep, leaving you less well-rested in the morning.

"In a new space, the temperature, ambient lighting, mattress firmness, and pillow quality might all be different from what you’re used to." —Peter Polos, MD, sleep expert

And even after your brain processes the new space as safe and the first-night effect wears off, other components of a new environment could thwart good sleep. “In a new space, the temperature, ambient lighting, mattress firmness, and pillow quality might all be different from what you’re used to,” says sleep specialist Peter Polos, MD, PhD, FCCP, FAASM, sleep expert for Sleep Number. “As your body works to adjust, you can experience reduced sleep quality.” Not to mention, any anxiety you might feel about getting physically comfortable in a new place will only magnify the difficulty you have falling and staying asleep, says Carleara Weiss, PhD, MS, RN, medical director at Aeroflow Sleep.

But none of this is to say that you're destined for exhaustion and sleeplessness in a new environment. Below, the experts share their best advice for adapting to a new sleep environment and getting better shut-eye as a result.

4 expert-approved ideas for how to get better sleep in a new place

1. Keep your nighttime routine intact

Since much of what leads to quality sleep hinges on having a solid routine, it's important to keep as much of your typical pre-sleep ritual intact as you can whenever you're shaking up your sleeping locale. “That includes when you brush your teeth, when you get into bed, and even what side of the bed you sleep on,” says Dr. Polos. And since daytime activities can influence sleep quality, too, it’s helpful to keep roughly the same schedule of mealtimes and workouts, says Wermter.

2. Bring sleep-promoting items from home

Of course, if you’ve moved to a new home, you’ll presumably have your same mattress, pillows, and so on—but if you’re traveling, you might consider bringing a small pillow, blanket, or sleep mask that you typically use or that’s a part of your usual sleep environment. “This gives your unconscious mind a break from that first-night vigilance, since you’ll already have known ‘influencers’ of good sleep with you,” says Dr. Breus. If you use a pillow spray at home, bring that with you, too, and let the smell set a familiar tone, says Wermter.

3. Do something relaxing right before bed

Even if you abide by your regular ritual and have a few familiar sleep elements by your side, you might need an extra nudge to calm nerves in a new place. Dr. Weiss suggests taking a warm shower, meditating or praying (if that's something you do), and avoiding the light from electronic devices for at least one hour before your bedtime, in order to shift into sleep mode. You can also keep a fan on to provide an extra bit of white noise that can aid with relaxation, she says.

4. Adjust the environment for optimal sleep hygiene

All the experts recommend doubling down on your sleep hygiene in order to counteract the sleep-diminishing forces at play. That means controlling the light, temperature, and noise in your space to the best of your ability, says Wermter: Draw the blinds or use a sleep mask for maximum darkness (and put a towel at the bottom of a door if light leaks in), set the thermostat between 60°F and 67°F (or turn the air conditioner to "cool" with a high fan setting), and use earplugs to nix external sounds. Essentially, all the usual "good-sleep rules" apply that much more when you’re trying to doze off in a new place.

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