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Moving Into a New Place? Traveling? 5 Ideas to Skip the ‘First Night Effect’ 

By: SleepScore Labs  |  May 11th, 2022

Many people’s first night’s rest in a new place is usually everything but restful. Even when your body is prepared to get much-needed sleep, you might still struggle to get uninterrupted and restorative sleep.

The question is, why does this happen? Sleep experts say it’s because of a phenomenon called the first-night effect.

This article takes you through the first-night effect and how to support deep refreshing sleep on the first and subsequent nights in a new place.

What is the First-Night Effect?

Have you ever experienced poor sleep when sleeping in a new environment that you’re not familiar with or accustomed to? The first-night effect is a disturbance to sleep architecture that commonly occurs when sleeping in a new environment.

When sleeping in a new or unfamiliar place, you actually sleep like a dolphin – one half your brain is more vigilant than the other to protect you during sleep.

This part of the brain watches out for indications of danger and wakes you up if it finds any. The slightest sound, light, touch, or other external stimuli that would typically not interfere with your sleep can wake you up during the first night. You might also struggle to fall asleep as quickly as you usually would.

The first night effect is characterized by a reduction in total sleep time, lower sleep efficiencies, and reductions to important sleep stages such as REM sleep.

An older study suggests that this first night effect may extend beyond the first night. However, a study that looked at how the first-night effect affects the accuracy of polysomnography (a test performed during sleep for diagnosing sleep disorders) found that this effect only occurs on the first night of polysomnography recording. Similarly, another study observed that the first-night effect usually wears out by the second night.

Ways to Support Quality Sleep in a New Place

Since our brains are programmed to be alert the first night in a new place, sleep may be hard to come by. Check out these 5 ideas you can try next time you’re staying at a friends, in a hotel, or settling into your new home.

Go Out For Some Sunlight

Sunlight has a tremendous effect on sleep and the circadian rhythm, the body clock that regulates sleep-wake patterns. When you expose yourself to it, especially in the first hours of the day, you set yourself up for an energetic and productive day and restful night.

Having sunlight in the morning can help your body feel sleepy during the evening hours, so falling asleep won’t be a hassle.

A 2019 study on how sunlight impacts sleep in children and teens observed that sunlight exposure might reduce how much time you spend trying to sleep and increase sleep duration. Similarly, a 2017 study on the benefit of daytime light exposure on mood and sleep suggests that sunlight exposure can improve mood, stress levels, and sleep health.

Bring Something that Helps Trick Your Brain Into Thinking You’re Still Home

It may sound simple, but bringing a little something that reminds you of home can be just what you need to quickly assimilate to your new environment. Consider packing a blanket, pillow, or even a scent from your own home bedroom. This little trick can a small but powerful way to overcome that first-night effect.

Don’t Overlook Your Bedtime Routine

You might be tempted to throw your sleep routine out the window on your first night in a new place. Resist the urge! It’s always more beneficial to engage in familiar bedtime activities that help your body wind down for deep restorative sleep.

If you don’t already have a relaxing evening routine, you can start one. This routine usually involves activities that help you feel grounded and relaxed and lead to bedtime. You can read a hardcover novel, do yoga or meditate, take an evening walk, have a warm bath, do your skincare routine, or do any other activity that helps you feel refreshed and doesn’t involve screen time.

Minimize or Eliminate Noise 

Try to make sure that wherever you’re sleeping is as quiet as possible to give your brain little reasons to wake you up in the middle of the night. Generally, noise has been shown to disrupt sleep and impact sleep quality.

The neighborhood you’re staying in in can determine what steps you should take to keep your room as quiet as possible. If you’re in a calm and serene area, you may only need to shut down all devices that could potentially beep in the middle of the night.

Otherwise, it’s best to get earplugs to block out noise so you can have an undisturbed sleep. Studies suggest that earplugs can improve sleep quality, duration, and efficiency, rapid eye movement (REM) time, and reduce nighttime awakenings and arousal. Earplugs are a good temporary solution for when you’re sleeping in a new environment and aren’t used to the new sounds around you.

If plugging your ears throughout the night doesn’t sound comfortable, you can also block out noise by using white noise. White noise drowns out external noise and relaxes the mind. You can get a white noise machine or just use apps with white noise features to help you fall and stay asleep.

Block External Light Sources

Another thing that can prevent you from catching great sleep while somewhere new is light. You can invest in an eye mask to block light and support undisturbed sleep. If you have electronic devices that emit LED lighting in the room, shut them down or keep them somewhere else.

Keep to Your Sleep Schedule

One of the most crucial ways to protect your sleep in a new place is by keeping to your sleep schedule.

If you usually go to bed at 9 pm and wake up at 6 am, try not to move your sleep and wake times to later. When you follow a fixed sleep-wake time, you prime your body to feel comfortable falling asleep at a particular time. You can also get adequate sleep duration and sleep quality with a regular sleep schedule.

A 2019 study suggests that regular sleepers had more sleep time, less difficulty falling asleep, and less daytime sleepiness compared to irregular sleepers.

Be Mindful of Caffeine, Alcohol, and Heavy Meals

Caffeine, alcohol, and heavy or spicy meals can disrupt your sleep if you have them around bedtime. Considering the brain is already predisposed to being alert at nighttime, it’s safer not to do any other thing that will disturb your rest.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends avoiding heavy or spicy meals three hours before bedtime and limiting caffeine, chocolate, and nicotine five or more hours before bedtime. For alcohol, experts recommend not having any three hours before bedtime to protect your sleep.

The first-night effect is real and can make a restful sleep seem impossible. You can reduce its impact by following these practices and sleep hygiene habits. If you still have a night of poor sleep, that’s okay. One rough night’s rest doesn’t put your sleep health in jeopardy. Your body will adapt to your new environment and get proper sleep on subsequent nights.

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