How to sleep better on the first night of your holiday

There are a number of reasons so many of us struggle to sleep on the first night of our holiday. (Getty Images)
There are a number of reasons so many of us struggle to sleep on the first night of our holiday. (Getty Images)

You've been looking forward to it for months, a chance to switch off from the stresses of everyday life and catch up on some much-needed sleep. Why then, are you still struggling to nod off at 4am on the first night of your holiday?

If all this sounds exhaustingly familiar you're not alone with a survey revealing 70% of Brits claiming they frequently struggle to get a good night's rest.

But what is it about the first night in particular that makes it oh so tiring?

"A poor night’s sleep on the first night of your greatly anticipated holiday is the exact opposite of the relaxing getaway we all spend months dreaming about," explains Lisa Artis, sleep expert and deputy CEO of The Sleep Charity.

Artis says there are several reasons why you may experience the ‘First Night Effect’, one of which is the travelling itself.

"Going away often means early morning flights, restless sleep from excitement, and a mountain of items to remember to pack keeping you awake before you’ve even boarded the plane," she explains.

"This can have a knock-on effect on your first night away, as all the stress of reaching your destination can cause anxiety within the body - this excess energy is exactly what could be disrupting your first night’s sleep."

A bad night's sleep often means we end up snoozing on the sunlounger. (Getty Images)
A bad night's sleep often means we end up snoozing on the sunlounger. (Getty Images)

Planes themselves often don’t help things as the air con leaves us dehydrated, and a dehydrated body can lead to headaches which make it harder to sleep.

"There is also a lot of blue light on planes from screens and personal devices," Artis continues. "Blue light suppresses the body's release of melatonin, which is the hormone that makes us feel drowsy, and potentially making you feel wide awake by the time you reach your destination."

Artis says different time zones can also wreak havoc on your ability to drop off to sleep on your first night.

"The shift in time zones (often coupled with jet lag!) disrupts your body’s circadian rhythm, leaving you staring at the ceiling during the night and snoozing on the sunbeds the next day," she explains.

It can also take a while to get used to a new sleeping environment.

"You’ve got a new bed, new bedroom, new routine, new temperatures, and perhaps you’re sharing a room with others, too," Artis continues.

"This disruption to routine can have a massive impact on your ability to drift off, especially if you’re quite sensitive to new environments.

Additionally, when you sleep in a new place, your brain is more alert to potential threats, leading to lighter and more disrupted sleep.

"The unfamiliar surroundings cause a heightened state of awareness, making it difficult to fall and stay asleep," Artis adds.

The 'first night effect' is real, according to scientists. (Getty Images)
The 'first night effect' is real, according to scientists. (Getty Images)

As well as the reasons above, scientists have pointed to something referred to as "the first night effect" where one half of the brain unconsciously stays more alert when in unfamiliar surroundings.

"The 'first night effect' is essentially when your brain stays half awake when you are sleeping in a different environment than your usual bed or bedroom," explains Dave Gibson sleep expert at Vitabiotics.

"It’s basically a survival mechanism. Essentially, half of your brain (your left-hand side ) stays awake. This then leads to you taking longer to get to sleep, shorter and lighter sleep and more awakenings during the night."

Thankfully there are ways to turn down alertness in your mind, so you can get a much needed snooze on the first night of your trip.

Fuel your body

Artis says eating around your usual meal times and drinking plenty of water on the day you are travelling will help your body adjust to the displacement of travel. "It will also help keep your circadian rhythm as balanced as possible while moving through time zones," she adds.

Know your routine

Try and stick to your normal bedtime routine as much as possible. "If you’re the type to need wind-down time, factor that in," suggests Artis. "Or, if you do feel anxiety once you have reached your accommodation, perhaps go for a short walk or some light movement before you go to bed to help exert some energy."

Keep cool

New climates can really disrupt sleep, and the first night is most likely the worst. "Set your air con to 16-18 degrees, as this is the ideal temperature for sleeping," Artis suggests. "Take a cool (not cold) shower before bed to help lower your body temperature before you sleep as our body temperatures naturally decrease as we sleep, so this will help you on your way."

Experts suggest starting the adjustment to a new sleep routine at home. (Getty Images)
Experts suggest starting the adjustment to a new sleep routine at home. (Getty Images)

Out of office

Holidays are the best way to detach from the real world and take a well-earned break. "If you left your workplace feeling anxious about taking time off, try your best not to check your emails when you land," Artis explains. "This will only heighten anxiety and make it harder to drift off on the first night of your time off."

Adjust your sleep routine before you go

Gibson suggests adapting a sleep routine before you even step on the plane. "Get used to the changes in any sleep hygiene techniques or routine before you go on holiday so that they are locked into your brain as being habitual," he advises. "This means they will feel natural when you are on holiday in a strange bedroom."

Changes he recommends include:

  • Gradually change your sleep times to match the new time zone, to protect against jet lag.

  • For light use, eye masks block out the light, so its consistent in both bedrooms

  • The same would work with using earplugs to block out strange sounds in a new bedroom – or sleep on your left-hand side to muffle the sounds on this side (which naturally stays more alert). Or use white noise in both places ( or binaural beats) or the same meditation tape, etc

  • Use lavender on your pillow both at home and in the new bed. Lavender is a proven sleep aid.

  • Practice relaxation techniques such as meditation and deep breathing as a way of relaxing.

  • You could bring your favourite pillow or a blanket to make things more usual and familiar.

  • Children should always bring their special and favourite cuddly toy.

  • Magnesium would be a great sleep aid too as it helps with neural and muscle relaxation and is also part of the nutrients which regulate neurotransmitters and the hormone melatonin, which guide sleep-wake cycles.