Trouble Sleeping in a New Place? This Might Be Why

We’ve all been there—exhausted after a day of traveling, you crash in a friend’s guest room only to wake up 8 hours later still feeling wiped. Maybe you had trouble falling asleep and continued to toss and turn all night, waking at every tiny noise or shift in light. Perhaps you blamed it on that green tea you had at 3pm. Either way, the next night you sleep like a baby, no problems.

This is a fairly common phenomenon, and there is a scientific explanation. It’s called first-night effect, and it is a well-documented form of sleep disturbance. But why do so many of us struggle to fall asleep on our first night in a new environment?

Recent research suggests that we have evolved a sort of “night watch.” When we sleep in a new place, oftentimes one hemisphere of our brain will stay more active throughout the night, instead of recharging. In an effort at protection, any external stimulation detected by the waking hemisphere will quickly wake the sleeper. Sure, it keeps humans safe from nocturnal dangers. But this also means that your entire brain is not recharging with plenty of deep sleep, which means you’ll feel a bit groggy the next day.

woman in bed late night trying to sleep suffering insomnia

Nowadays, it’s unlikely that your friend’s guest room is dangerous, so this can be a rather cumbersome evolutionary trait. The same first-night effect can be felt, perhaps more strongly, when camping. Foreign noises, unfamiliar temperatures, changing conditions—all of these things are watched by half of our brain, which explains why you may not feel well rested after your first night in your sleeping bag. The same phenomenon happens in all sorts of animals. It makes sense; the outdoors can feel like a scary place at night.

So what can you do to increase your chances of a good rest, no matter where you’re sleeping? It is important to make yourself as comfortable as possible. Yes, maybe that means bringing your own pillow. But it could also mean using a sound machine to drown out urban noise, wearing a sleeping mask to mimic the darkness of your home bedroom, or listening to Stephen Frye reading Harry Potter to lull you into dreamland as you sometimes do at home.

Use sounds, light, objects and familiar smells to instill a sense of safety and calm before bedtime. The more comfortable and safe you can make yourself feel on a subconscious level, the better your odds are for getting a deep, restorative sleep.

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75 comments

Czerny A
Czerny A1 months ago

So true. I fear this will happen when I stay overnight in Wash, DC for the Korean Dog Meat Protest on 7/17.

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Clare O'Beara
Clare O3 months ago

th

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Louise R
Louise R3 months ago

Thank you

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Marija M
Marija M3 months ago

tks very much

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Lorraine Andersen
Lorraine Andersen3 months ago

thanks for the tips.

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Peggy B
Peggy B3 months ago

Noted

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Lesa D
Lesa D3 months ago

thank you Jordyn...

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Andrea B
Andrea B3 months ago

The first night elsewhere is always just horrible

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Louise R
Louise R3 months ago

thank you for posting

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Amanda M
Amanda M3 months ago

I've got firsthand experience with this! Thanks to moving 14 times in as many years (no, I'm NOT in the military!), I don't sleep a wink my first night in a strange place-those unfamiliar noises keep my brain on alert and ensure that I never get a solid night's sleep until the second or third night when I finally settle in (that mom radar and a bit of PTSD from a SHTF experience in my life four years ago don't help either). But I never knew it actually had a name until now! At least I know I'm not nuts and there actually is a genuine reason for it!

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