Can’t Sleep While Traveling? How to Get Great Sleep When You’re Away From Home

Man sleeping in modern hotel room.

Have you ever looked forward to a vacation or time away from home, only to find that once you’ve arrived, you can’t sleep? And if you can’t sleep, it’s harder to enjoy all the good times ahead.

Traveling and visiting new places is fun— and vacations are a great time to recharge and get a little extra sleep, or work on your beauty sleep. But even if fun and relaxation are your goals, it can be hard to get the rest you need while you’re away from home.

But why is this the case? In theory, you should be able to sleep great if you have extra time to rest and relax. There’s an interesting reason for that— let’s take a look.

Can’t Sleep While Traveling? This Might Be Why

I talk a lot about how a consistent sleep routine is key to getting a good night’s sleep. And while going to bed and waking up at the same time is a vital part of that routine, it isn’t the only part of that routine. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you already know that your sleep routine also includes your nighttime rituals, your personal hygiene routine, et cetera.

And while being on vacation or spending time out of the home can be a relaxing experience, this change in your routine can make it a challenge to get the good sleep you need. Something as simple as a change in your normal sleep environment can make sleeping away from home a chore. 

Even factors that seem minor— but are nevertheless important— such as temperature, a different pillow or bed, or different lighting can prevent you from getting the restful sleep you need. While your body can and certainly will adjust to those changes, your sleep quality can suffer in the meantime.

This is thanks to what’s known as the First-Night Effect (FNE).

The First-Night Effect

The first-night effect occurs when one hemisphere of your brain stays “on” and is more vigilant during the night to monitor your new surroundings for potential threats. At the same time, you and the rest of your brain are trying to sleep! As a result, you may experience poor quality, fragmented sleep, or you may not even sleep at all.

It can definitely be annoying, but the FNE is actually a protective action that your brain takes to try and keep you safe in a new sleep environment. Of course, it’s not always necessary if you’re staying in a safe and comfortable place, but if something does go amiss, it’s easier for you to wake up and react.

Even if you are able to sleep in your hotel room or in a new environment, your sleep may still suffer because you’re not experiencing the deep, restful sleep you need to feel rejuvenated in the morning. This isn’t because of your environment like the First-Night Effect is— it’s because of how your circadian rhythm is responding to the change of scenery.

How Travelling Can Impact Your Circadian Rhythm

Your sleep schedule is primarily influenced by your circadian rhythm. This rhythm regulates your sleep-wake cycle according to the sun’s schedule. It helps you wake up when the sun rises and gets you ready for sleep when it sets. If you travel a lot like I do, especially across time zones, then you know how hard it can be to sleep when the local time doesn’t match up with your body’s internal clock.

Of course, this sensation is actually a well-known type of circadian rhythm disorder known as jet lag. Jet lag is most common if you travel across two or more time zones, especially traveling east where you “lose” a few hours.

Jet lag isn’t just a mixed-up sleep-wake schedule and sleep deprivation though. Some additional jet lag symptoms include:

  • General malaise
  • Stomach or gastrointestinal discomfort
  • Being emotional or irritable
  • Daytime fatigue

Being jet-lagged or sleep-deprived can easily ruin what should be a relaxing time away from home. But don’t worry— it is possible to get a good night’s sleep away from home, even if half of your brain is on night watch.

If you are traveling across multiple time zones, a simple app called TIMESHIFTER can help you prepare your sleep for the new timezone and reduce the effects of jet lag significantly. 

How to Help the Whole Family Get Great Sleep Away From Home

You and your family don’t have to put up with poor sleep during a family outing. Check out my suggestions for limiting sleep problems and getting a better night’s rest, even when you’re far from home.

  • Use earplugs to block out any ambient noise.
  • Strategic light exposure can help your circadian rhythm adjust to different time zones. You can also limit unwanted light exposure while you sleep with a good eye mask.
  • Bring your pillow and a favorite blanket to make the new sleep environment feel more familiar.
  • Stick to your regular sleep schedule and bedtime routine as much as you can. This means if you’re in a different time zone, you want to sync your bedtime with the local schedule. In other words— go to bed at your normal time, but according to the new time zone. The TIMESHIFTER app I mentioned above makes this easy.
  • Practice relaxation techniques before bed, such as journaling, meditation, or taking a warm bath.
  • If you can, sleep or nap while you travel, whether you’re traveling by plane, train, or automobile. Don’t forget your travel pillow, eye mask, or earplugs.

These tips aren’t just for the adults in the room— the kids can benefit from these suggestions too! Here are a few more ways you can help your kids of any age sleep well while they’re away from home.

How to Help Your Toddler or Baby Sleep

It’s not always realistic to haul the regular crib around with you when you travel, but it’s still possible for your baby or toddler to sleep comfortably away from home without it.

  • When visiting a friend or relative’s house, keep a pack ‘n play or an extra crib there for whenever they spend the night.
  • If possible, acclimatize your child to sleeping away from home. This is especially helpful for when you stay with family or friends.
  • Bringing a pack ‘n play or a travel crib along on vacation provides your baby or toddler a safe and comfortable place to sleep, especially if they’re used to sleeping in it already. Your hotel likely has a crib you can use during your stay as well.
  • If your baby or toddler normally falls asleep to a white noise machine or sound machine at home, bring it along.
  • Bring a crib sheet from home to use in a hotel crib— the familiar smell of their sheets can help your child drift off and fall asleep easier in a new environment. You can also bring familiar pillows, blankets, or pacifiers to help with sleep.
  • Keep your child on their normal sleep schedule as much as you can, and avoid too many naps while out and about. This can throw off their sleep schedule and lead to a sleep-deprived, overstimulated— and cranky— baby or toddler.
  • Most importantly— make sure your baby or toddler sleeps safely. This can help your peace of mind too.

How to Help Your Children Sleep

As they grow, your kids’ sleep needs are a lot different than they were during their diaper days. Whether they’re joining you on a family trip or attending a sleepover at a friend’s house, these tips can help your children— whether they are young children or teens— get better sleep away from home.

  • Many kids experience somatic responses such as headaches or an upset stomach when they get anxious— familiarize yourself with these cues so you can help your child relax and sleep better. Normalizing their feelings can help your children cope with and rise above those anxieties, and is helpful for promoting social and emotional development.
  • Adding to this, older kids can practice relaxation techniques to help them sleep better. Younger kids may have a harder time articulating their feelings, so helping them focus their energy on play or something fun before bed may help them relax and sleep better.
  • Bring a comfort item for them if they’re in an unfamiliar place. This could be anything from a favorite blanket or toy, to their favorite book or pictures.

Don’t Lose Sleep Over Your Vacation

Whether you’re going on vacation or visiting loved ones, neither you nor your family shouldn’t have to put up with lost sleep in a time where you should be able to relax. It might seem counterintuitive to stick to a certain schedule while you’re away from home, but it does make a huge difference when it comes to getting the quality sleep you need.

So no matter where you go, I hope you have safe travels and can spend your nights resting easy.

Sweet Dreams,

Michael J. Breus, PhD, FAASM

The Sleep Doctor

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Michael Breus, Ph.D - The Sleep Doctor is a Diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine and a Fellow of The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and one of only 168 psychologists to pass the Sleep Medical Specialty Board without going to medical school. Dr. Breus is a sought after lecturer and his knowledge is shared daily in major national media worldwide including Today, Dr. Oz, Oprah, and for fourteen years as the sleep expert on WebMD. Dr. Breus is the bestselling author of The Power of When, The Sleep Doctor’s Diet Plan and Good Night!

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