Unusual reason we struggle when not sleeping in our own bed – and how to combat it

By Staff 8 Min Read

Ever experienced a less-than-satisfactory rest after sleeping anywhere other than your own bed? Join the club … but why does it happen? Here, an expert unravels the mysterious ‘first night effect’

Over the summer months, many of us will be heading off for a well-earned respite from the demands of daily life.

However, amid all the excitement, one often overlooked aspect is the potential impact on sleep quality. A fundamental pillar of human health and well-being, sleep plays a crucial role in regulating various physiological processes, including memory consolidation, immune function, and emotional regulation.

Yet when we venture away from our accustomed dwellings, whether for a weekend retreat or a longer holida, the change in environment can significantly influence the quality of our sleep. Here Max Kirsten, resident sleep expert for Panda London, explains the mysterious ‘first night effect’ and how to best to navigate it.

What is the ‘first night effect’?

The notion of ‘first-night effect’ in sleep research highlights how individuals tend to experience poorer sleep quality when sleeping in a novel environment. This phenomenon, characterised by difficulty falling asleep and disrupted sleep patterns, is believed to stem from the brain’s heightened vigilance in unfamiliar surroundings – a residual survival mechanism inherited from our evolutionary past.

Moreover, the physical attributes of a new sleeping environment, such as the mattress firmness, ambient noise levels, and temperature, can further impact sleep quality. While some may find themselves lulled into a restful slumber by the gentle rustle of leaves or the distant murmur of waves, others might struggle to adapt to the unfamiliar soundscape, leading to fragmented sleep and daytime drowsiness.

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Additionally, the psychological aspect of sleeping in a different place cannot be underestimated. Factors like excitement, anticipation, or even anxiety about the unfamiliar surroundings can contribute to heightened arousal levels, making it challenging to relax and fall asleep. Getting a good night’s sleep in a different bed can be challenging due to various factors that disrupt our usual sleep routine and comfort levels. Here are some reasons why it’s difficult and tips on how to address them:

Unfamiliar environment: Sleeping in a new place can trigger a heightened sense of alertness and vigilance, known as the ‘first-night effect’. Our brains are wired to remain vigilant in unfamiliar surroundings as a survival mechanism. This heightened awareness can make it harder to relax and fall asleep.

Tip: Bring familiar items from home, such as a favourite pillow or blanket, to create a sense of comfort and familiarity in the new environment. Additionally, try to arrive early to allow yourself time to acclimate to the new space before bedtime.

Different mattress and bedding: The firmness, texture, and quality of the mattress and bedding in a new bed may differ from what you’re used to at home. This can lead to discomfort and difficulty finding a comfortable sleeping position.

Tip: If possible, inquire about the mattress type and consider bringing a mattress topper or portable mattress pad to adjust the firmness and provide extra comfort. Additionally, bringing your own pillow or a travel-sized pillowcase can help maintain a consistent level of neck support.

Noise and disturbances: New environments may come with unfamiliar sounds such as street noise, neighbours, or hotel activity, disrupting your sleep patterns.

Tip: Use earplugs or a white noise machine to block out disruptive sounds and create a more conducive sleeping environment. Alternatively, consider using a smartphone app that offers soothing nature sounds or ambient music to mask unwanted noise.

Temperature variations: Different climates or heating/cooling systems in a new place can affect your body’s ability to regulate temperature, leading to discomfort and sleep disturbances.

Tip: Pack clothing layers to adjust to temperature variations and bring along a portable fan or small heater if needed. Additionally, communicate with your host or hotel staff to inquire about room temperature controls and preferences.

Psychological factors: Excitement, anticipation, or anxiety about the new environment can contribute to difficulty falling asleep and disrupted sleep patterns.

Tip: Practise relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, or progressive muscle relaxation to calm your mind and body before bedtime. Establishing a pre-sleep routine, such as reading a book or taking a warm bath, can also signal to your body that it’s time to wind down.

By addressing these common challenges and implementing practical strategies, you can improve your chances of getting a good night’s sleep in a different bed, ensuring a more restful and rejuvenating experience during your travels.

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