Why Is It Hard to Get a Good Night’s Sleep in Hotels?

Sleeping in a hotel should be a luxurious, relaxing experience. But if you find yourself staying up past your normal bedtime, tossing and turning throughout the first night of your hotel stay, you are not alone.

Sleep In Hotels

You could have attributed your restlessness to jet lag, a stiff mattress or if you’re like me, stress about the long work day(s) ahead. But sleep researchers went beyond those seemingly obvious causes and dug a little deeper (as researchers tend to do) and named the experience the “first night effect,” or FNE.

They found that “…the first night of laboratory sleep contains more awake periods and less Stage I-rapid eye movement sleep. There is a delay in the onset of Staves IV and I-REM and the sleep is more changeable.”

Those laboratory sleep participants (yes, I wish I could get paid to sleep, too) only came from across town and didn’t have anything pressing to do the next day, so the culprits mentioned above couldn’t account for the FNE.

Before we get into why that is, though, I found it useful to understand the stages of sleep. We have all heard about REM sleep and that we need more of it, but let’s take a quick second to look a little closer:

Stage I

Rapid eye movement sleep – it doesn’t sound so great, but it is the first step to falling asleep successfully. It is in this stage that you could be awakened easily and the eyes move slowly as muscle activity slows down.

Stage 2

Eye movement stops and our brain waves become slower.

Stages 3 & 4:

Extremely slow brain waves begin to appear and it is very difficult to wake a person during these stages. According to the Sleep Association, this is what people refer to as “deep sleep.” These stages are when some kids wet the bed, have night terrors or sleep walk. Yeah, stage 4 is when you can say you “slept walk” to the fridge and ate the rest of the Halo Top carton.


REM: Maybe I’m the only one in the world who didn’t know how this crazy one worked, but it blew my mind. When people mentioned REM I associated it with deep sleep. But instead, during this stage, breathing becomes more rapid and irregular and our eyes move really quickly in various direction (hence “rapid eye movement” – an ‘oooh’ moment for me). Semi-terrifying is the fact that during this period our limb muscles become temporarily paralyzed, our heart rate increases and blood pressure rises. Depending on the content, it may not surprise you that dreams take place during this stage.

Now knowing the stages of sleep, the reason researchers found that hotel goers experience FNE is even more intriguing. A recent study stated that “…the FNE is a manifestation of one hemisphere being more vigilant than the other as a night watch to monitor unfamiliar surroundings during sleep.”

Basically, half of your brain is constantly on high alert throughout the night, keeping you from entering in those important final stages. “Sleeping with one eye open” is no longer just a saying, but a real reason for why you aren’t getting the quality shut eye you would prefer.


So what can you do to minimize this FNE impact?

If you have an important meeting or presentation, you could get in a night early so the second night your brain will be more relaxed to allow complete sleep.

Other than that, there unfortunately isn’t much else to be done, unless you visit a location frequently and stay in the same room each time. Knowing that there is a scientific cause to minimize the stress associated with not falling asleep is beneficial though, as the increased stress certainly maximizes the impact of the already active brain.

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About Catherine Toupin

Born and raised in the Chicago suburbs, Catherine is a proud graduate of two great Midwestern schools: the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and the University of Notre Dame. After receiving a degree in English and Communication, Catherine chose to take a risk and teach teenagers in Florabama for two years. Living in a location with warm weather year-round rekindled Catherine’s love of long outdoor runs (and of relaxing on a beach). Catherine has since taken a Meeting Planning job in Chicago, and though the views are slightly different, she still enjoys runs along the lake shore path and being outdoors as much as possible.