If you sleep away from home, do you struggle to fall asleep as easily as you might do in your own bed? And even if you do get some shuteye, do you still feel tired the next day? You're not alone - and this phenomenon has a name. Scientists have aptly titled it "The First Night Effect", a theory based upon research that poor sleep on the first night in a new environment is a natural, evolutionary self-defense mechanism.
One night of light sleep may not be a problem. But what happens when you fly to another state for a conference? You do not sleep well on the plane due to the first night effect and because it isn’t an ideal situation for sleep. You may change time zones. Then you stay at an unfamiliar hotel and sleep lightly once again due to first night effect. You wake up early for the conference and stay up late networking.
In April 2016, researchers explored the first night effect using advanced neuroimaging techniques and polysomnography. The results were reported in Current Biology. In a study of 35 people sleeping in new environments, measuring brain activity on the first night and subsequent nights, they focused their attention on the slow (Delta) wave part of the sleep cycle. This part of the sleep cycle is when we’re in our deepest sleep, and is also an essential restorative phase of sleep.
The research found that the left-hand side of the brain appeared to stay more active than the right-hand side on the first night. However, in the following nights there was little or no difference in activity between the two sides. The brain also reacted much more to external noise on the first night, resulting in more awakenings and a faster reaction time.
So, how can you combat this phenomenon to make sure the first night of your trip is still as restful as possible? First of all, be aware that First Night Effect and Sleep Debt are real. You may not be able to avoid First Night Effect, but you may be able to plan around it. If you tend to have problems sleeping away from home, simple strategies can help you get over first-night tossing and turning. To start with, an ideal strategy is to bring something familiar - the pyjamas you wear regularly, a pillowcase that smells like your room at home, the tea you would usually drink before bed.
It is also a good habit to keep your regular bedtime routine when sleeping away from home - and to make their new surroundings as comfortably familiar as you can. For example - try to book a hotel room with the same size bed as your bed at home. If you’re used to sleeping in a king-size bed, a double or twin may feel strange.
With a little planning, you can stop “First Night Effect” from ruining your trip - but if you still can't get over the first night blues? Try our fool proof tips for getting cosy and sleeping well in a hotel.