The science behind why we find it hard to sleep in a strange bed

If you can't sleep in a strange room, get out of bed and move to another area.

If you can't sleep in a strange room, get out of bed and move to another area.

A luxury hotel. The guest room at a friend or relative's house. A nice Airbnb rental.

All three are set up with comforts to give you the best night's sleep possible, but many of us will have trouble getting proper shut-eye for the first night in any of them.

Despite plush mattresses and quaint signs that say "relax", sleeping in a bed that isn't your own is a difficult task on the first night for most people. And there's science to prove it.

Researchers have been looking at the "first night" effects of people trying to sleep in new places for more than 50 years. This year, Brown University in the US published a groundbreaking new study, confirming that humans – like some animals – have the ability to sleep with one eye open.

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This isn't literal – rather, it's the cerebral equivalent. As a survival act when sleeping in an unfamiliar place, humans are on the lookout for threats, just in case we need to make a run for it.

Travelling with your own pillow can make a big improvement.

Travelling with your own pillow can make a big improvement.

This happens by keeping one side of your brain (the left) on at a higher level of activity than it normally would be during deep sleep mode. The right side of the brain is able to enter the standard sleep mode, but that other side stays awake to detect unusual sounds, smells, and activities – preparing you to jump into action and scurry away if necessary.

What does this actually feel like? It's a night of frequent waking, tossing and turning, periods where minutes feel like hours, and moments where you can't tell if you're asleep and dreaming, or awake and just ruminating thoughts.


The science suggests that part of the human brain remains instinctively animal, but logically, humans should know better. When we're trying to sleep at The Hilton, there's no real danger of being eaten by a bear. If we're on our mate's couch for the night, we aren't worried of being swept out to sea.

With that in mind, there are things we can do to trick ourselves into a feeling of safety, in order to promote a better first night's sleep in a new bed.

Namely, travelling with your own pillow can make a big improvement. It feels like home, it smells like home, and if you're tired enough, you might convince yourself you are indeed safe at home.


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Other little tricks can help convince you that your surroundings are familiar and thus not a threat. Including, for example, what you're able to see/not see in the dark. If you're accustomed to being able to check the time on an LED clock radio at home, consider bringing it with you. Conversely, if "2.15AM" in bright red digits is the last thing you'd ever see in your own bedroom, turn off clocks (and similar light-emitting appliances) at the wall in foreign bedrooms.

Noise control is a big one. Whether it's the buzzing of air conditioning or sirens on the street outside, unfamiliar sounds both small and large create a sense of unease and distress. With any of those feelings, you're going to find it tough to turn your brain off at night.

Rather than popping in those flimsy neon airline-grade earplugs, buy some malleable, waterproof earplugs for swimmers from a pharmacy. They can give you almost complete silence, and if you put them in for 10-20 minutes before you get into bed, there won't be a big audible change between lights on and off.


Perhaps the best method in getting a better first night's sleep is actually forcing yourself out of bed. When you're in a strange room, there's a tendency to feel trapped like you can't move around – which is the opposite of feeling safe. When you can't sleep, you must get out of bed and move to another area, otherwise your brain can associate that sleeping space with negative restlessness.

This is easier in a friend's house, but harder in when staying in a hotel. In the latter situation, you may want to consider splurging on a larger suite or at least a room with a balcony, so you can have a "safe space" to retreat to with ease.

Lastly, packing a prescription sleeping pill (or natural alternative like Melatonin) can serve as your safety net. It should prove helpful even if you don't actually use it, as sometimes all you need is the knowledge you have the option.

* Lee Suckling has a masters degree specialising in personal health reporting. Do you have a health topic you'd like Lee to investigate? Send us an email to with Dear Lee in the subject line.

 - Stuff


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