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can't sleep well in a new bedroom
Photo by Hernan Sanchez

Why You Can’t Sleep Well In a New Bedroom: First-Nighter Sleep Effect

Read about the interesting scientific explanation on why sleeping in a new place is rarely peaceful but also about how to trick your mind and body into relaxing like they should.

You probably have noticed that you can’t sleep well in a new bedroom for the first time, you feel unrested and dizzy the next morning. You may think the reason for not sleeping well could be the anxiety of being away from home or a high amount of stress. Or maybe you blame the new bed, the unfamiliar mattress or the sheets that smell differently than yours. Science tells us that all those could be distracting factors, but not the real cause of poor sleeping in a new environment.

Sleepless, Tired, Problem
Photo by Matthew Henry

Neuroscience has given a name to this phenomenon when you can’t sleep well in a new bedroom: FNE – first-night effect. A few studies have revealed why it happens. I confess I had no idea the explanation would be so simple! The next time you can’t enjoy a good first night sleep in a new habitat, blame it on your hyper-vigilant brain. Here’s why:

  • Just like birds and aquatic mammals, the human brain has two hemispheres. Unlike birds, ours are joined by nerves. Birds can switch off half their brain when sleeping. They keep one eye open, to send information to the corresponding side of the brain. That way, their brain can tell them to fly off if danger comes nearby.
  • Dolphins act similarly, also for safety reasons: they switch from one half of their brain to the other, when sleeping, to watch out for sharks. The same goes for sea lions or whales.
  • The human brain acts differently: when we see something, our eyes send the information to both sides of the brain. And when we sleep, we keep both our eyes closed.
  • Still, following a similar pattern to those birds and dolphins present, an unfamiliar new environment makes our brain suspicious and keeps our left hemisphere awake. It stays alert and spends the first night in “surveillance mode.”
  • The conclusion is simple: the troubled sleep we experience on the first night in a new environment is a guarding mechanism for humans, just as it is for animals. Lucky for us, we are more than capable of going back to sleeping soundly after the first night, once our brain is familiar with the new location.

This phenomenon – can’t sleep well in a new bedroom – doesn’t seem to affect too many people who sleep in new places all the time, but that would be a small category. Even though the level of comfort in a new bedroom doesn’t seem to matter in this case, there are a few tricks you should consider if you want a restful first night sleep, wherever you may be:

  • Use breathing or meditation techniques to induce tranquillity and safety to your mind and body.
  • The feeling of unfamiliarity mostly occurs because – according to Try Mattress – beds in new rooms may seem uninviting to you. Take a familiar (small) pillow with you when sleeping in a hotel or a new place. It will trick your brain into a peaceful rest.
  • Use smartphone apps that can generate soothing sounds – or even white noise, if that works out for you.
  • Turn off all the electronic devices in the room at least 90 minutes before going to bed.
  • Take a warm shower before going to bed. But remember to keep the room cool, because your body rests better at a lower temperature.

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