Shea Talks: Sleep, the First Night Effect and Holidays

When sleeping away from home, you may have noticed you struggle to fall asleep as easily as you do in your own bed. This very real phenomenon is known as the "First Night Effect", and is a natural, evolutionary self-defense mechanism. In this episode, Shea talks all things sleeping in a home away from home, and tips to make it the best night's sleep possible so you feel refreshed and ready for the first day of your holiday!

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It’s almost that time - Summer and school holidays! Whether you can travel far or not, chances are you’ll be sleeping in a home away from home at some point over the next few months - staycation anyone? When sleeping away from the comforts of our own home and bed, many of us struggle to fall asleep as easily as we normally would. Well tonight on The Goodnight Show, I’m going to be talking about a phenomenon aptly called ‘The First Night Effect’.

The First Night Affect is a theory based on research that poor sleep on the first night in a new environment is a natural, evolutionary self-defense mechanism. Studies have found that the left-hand side of the brain stays more active than the right hand side on the first night, but on subsequent nights, there’s almost no difference in activity between them. On the first night in an unfamiliar place, your brain also reacts much faster to external noise, resulting in more awakenings and a faster reaction time. While this is a great built-in security system, it isn’t going to result in the best night’s sleep.   

We can’t guarantee that you can avoid the First Night Effect altogether, but we may be able to help you plan around it. And I think also knowing that this actually is a real thing affecting so many people’s sleep helps too. If you know you have problems sleeping away from home you can prepare in advance, and employ some simple strategies to stop you from tossing and turning all night. 

Our first tip is keeping some elements of your sleep routine. We know it’s challenging to keep to your usual routine while away from home, but keeping some elements of your sleep routine on the first night in a new environment will definitely pay off! If there’s simple things you can do, or usually do as a part of your pre-sleep routine that you can incorporate easily into your travel, definitely give them a go! Even if it’s just one small element, it can help signal to your body that it’s time to sleep. These can be things like turning off your phone at least half an hour before bed-time, or using candles instead of lights. 

This leads us to our second tip which is to bring some pieces from home with you. This will help so you can practice your regular sleep routine with some of your homely essentials. I’d recommend your usual pyjamas, and tea. And this may be something that seems unusual, but even packing your regular pillowcase to put on top of the hotel pillows - something that smells familiar - can be a big help when falling asleep. 

All of our senses really do play a huge part in our sleep. Our sense of smell is so powerful and linked strongly to our memories and experiences. So I’d really recommend packing familiar scents from home if you have them, like your favourite essential oils. This will help you combat the First Night Effect. It’s all about making your surroundings as comfortably familiar as you can. 

We spoke last season about the effects of light on your sleep, and I never travel without a sleep mask. When you’re going to a hotel or AirBNB or wherever you might find yourself, it’s hard to know the amount of natural light that will be in any given sleep space, so creating consistency with something like an eye mask will mean your body isn’t affected by these lighting changes when you’re trying to sleep.

And similarly, the same is true for noise. If you’re used to living in the inner city and holidaying by the beach or vice versa, the unfamiliar noises may be unsettling and disruptive. An easy solution for this is just wearing some earplugs or playing some white noise on an app. These things aren’t hard to travel with and are so handy to have on your holidays just in case! You never really know what a place is going to be like until you arrive, so even if you don’t need them, it’s great to be prepared. 

Our last tip is to avoid using your bed for anything but sleep and sex. In the same way we recommend keeping your bedroom at home solely for sleep, we’d recommend your hotel bed is a sleep only zone. This one is a little tricky because there’s limited space in a hotel so it is tempting to use your bed as a one-stop office, Netflix hangout, wardrobe but blurring this line can make it that much more difficult to get into a zone for sleep. 

The good news is that you’re on holiday - so even if you do experience the First Night Effect, you might have time for an afternoon nap!