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What To Do If You Can't Sleep in an Unfamiliar Place

suitcases in hotel room blurred traveler looking out window

We've all been there. We're in an unfamiliar place, and seem to wake up every five minutes. It might take us forever to fall asleep, too. When we do wake up, we sometimes feel disoriented. We aren't rested, and both our relationships and our work can suffer.

Whether it's because of travel or you've moved to a new home, you may suffer from lack of sleep. What can you do if you can't sleep in an unfamiliar place?

Why You Find It Hard to Sleep in an Unfamiliar Place

First, let's look at why you can't sleep. There's actually a scientific reason, to a large degree. Researchers have found the left hemisphere of the brain is far more responsive to sounds when humans are in an unfamiliar place. Usually, both the left and right brain hemispheres engage in deep, slow brain-wave sleep. When you're in a strange place, just one hemisphere does. The other is extra-vigilant. You could be awoken by sounds you would not even be conscious of ordinarily.

Researchers believe this may be a holdover from prehistoric times when humans had to guard against wild animals (and other humans). In addition, of course, new stimuli of any kind is, well, stimulating. New smells, new types of light and darkness, and even new beds can all be a spur to our body that we need to pay attention to, not get drowsy. We may drop off, only to suddenly wake up and wonder briefly where we are.

Fortunately, there are solutions to sleeping in an unaccustomed place.

If You're Traveling

The best way to stay asleep when you're traveling is to make the area as familiar and like your home as possible.

If at all possible, bring your pillow. Your pillow smells like you. It will reassure your deepest animal nature that it can relax and go to sleep. Plus, of course, your pillow is comfortable, and any sleep material that's comfortable, from sheets to mattresses, helps us drop off to sleep.

By the same token, don't make travel a time when you're breaking in new pajamas. Wear the same comfortable nightwear you usually wear.

Be sure to make the room as dark as possible. If your curtains let in light from a parking lot or street, adjust them. If the space between door and floor is letting in light from the hallway, put towels across. If you know you are very sensitive to light, bring a sleep mask.

It can help to bring earplugs with you in case you have noisy neighbors.

Stay in one hotel for as long as possible. The more you move from place to place, the more likely it is you're going to be suffering from interrupted sleep (or no sleep). Each new hotel will put your brain's hemisphere on red alert. As a result, it's better to make one hotel your base and drive slightly longer to get to your travel destination than to change hotels for a shorter drive.

If You're in a New Home

Like travel, the first few nights in a new home can make you wake up every five minutes. In this case, your normal sleep patterns generally return in a week or so, as your body adjusts to the new normal. But there are things you can do to make sure sleep will come quickly (and stay).

Make your bedroom as familiar as possible. It's very likely you'll have the same bedding, pillows, and so forth, but the arrangement matters too. Your body can feel very disoriented from the bed being in a different position vis-à-vis the existing windows, or the dresser suddenly being far away if it's been close. The more the configuration of your new bedroom matches that of the old one, the quicker and more reliably you'll be counting zzz's.

Make your bedroom as calm and ordered as possible, even in the first few days after a move. It's not uncommon to take a few days at least to unpack fully. Make unpacking your sleep space a top priority. You need everything you usually have around you when you sleep: favorite PJs, nightstand, nightlight, even your books, and magazines if you keep these around for bedtime reading.

If your new bedroom is lighter at night than your old one, take steps to adjust it to the darkness you're used to. Get a heavier curtain or different window treatments. Similarly, if your new bedroom is noisier, take steps to reduce the noise. If you're closer to the family television, for example, either move the television or enforce an earlier shut-off time.

Listen to calming music before bed. Instrumental music can signal to your body it's time to relax, especially after a busy day of pulling up stakes to a new place. Don't just expect your body to turn off without help.

In Both Places

In unfamiliar places, sleep routines really matter in making you ready for sleep. Whatever your normal bedtime (and wake time) is, try to maintain it in both travel and a new home. We know travel can lead you to new restaurants or experiences that might keep you out later. And we know moving in and putting the kids to bed can take a long time in a new home. But forcing yourself to stay up later can disrupt your sleep routine, and cause fitful sleep. Even kept up for a week, not getting to bed on time can disrupt your normal rhythm.

Eliminate distractions that can keep you up. This means no trying new hotel channels past a certain bedtime hour. It can also mean no smartphones near you in bed. Even if you promise yourself you'll read on a smartphone, rather than checking work e-mails or social media, it's simply far too tempting for many people. Plus, light from smartphones can be distracting. Reading can help you drop off to sleep, so bring a book or magazines for bedtime stories.

Sleep tight!

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