Aside from figuring out a Rubik’s cube or baking a croquembouche, sleeping on a plane is arguably one of the most difficult tasks a human can accomplish. Between the close proximity to other people, the distractions, and acrobatic challenges of sleeping in a sardine tin of a seat, catching Zzz’s mid-flight can be as impossible as scoring a free upgrade to first class.
Of course, that first- or business-class seat upgrade that guarantees a flatbed seat is the exception to the bad-sleep conundrum, but most travelers fly in coach or economy class. For anyone on a long-haul or red-eye flight, there are a few tips, tricks, and sleep-promoting products to consider upon takeoff.
So here are a few basics on why you can’t sleep on a plane and how to sleep like a pro. Buckle up, breathe, and enjoy the ride.
Sleeping upright is one of the biggest issues with trying to sleep on a plane
Perhaps the biggest reason why you’re unable to sleep on planes is the unnatural position of being seated upright.
Olivia Arezzolo, Australia-based sleep coach, is no stranger to long-haul flights.
“Sleeping in an upright position is not normal,” she confirms. “And it is not what our brains associate with sleep.
“We have a psychological association between lying down and sleeping, and another between being awake and sitting upright,” says Arezzolo. “The position of the body informs the brain of these expected actions, which is an association formed over years and years.”
Leaning against a window can provide temporary relief, as can propping your legs, but it’s important to ultimately accept the fact that sleeping on a plane is a defiance of what’s considered normal, especially on a hard seat surface. For many passengers, that challenge cannot be overcome, no matter what remedy you try.
5 more reasons why it’s hard to sleep on plane
Arezzolo shares the other top five reasons why we’re likely unable to snooze our way from point A to point B.
Cabin crews typically dim the lights for overnight flights, but that won’t stop the person next to you from turning on an overhead reading light or using the headrest screen to watch a movie or television.
“Bright lights suppress melatonin, our sleepiness hormone,” explains Arezzolo. “As this hormone usually helps us fall and stay asleep, the excessively bright lights on airplanes naturally make it hard to sleep well.” Even if the lights aren’t bright enough to suppress melatonin, they can distract and irritate those trying to sleep.
Whether flight attendants make mid-flight announcements, turbulence causes a seat back tray to rattle, or a baby cries somewhere in the cabin, sudden loud noises are, unsurprisingly, not conducive to restful sleep, and even anticipating more sounds can be a distraction.
“These spike our levels of cortisol, a stress hormone which reduces sleep depth and makes us prone to nighttime wakings.”
This one can go both ways. If the snorer is nearby, it falls under reason number two and can cause further irritation and anxiety. But if you are guilty of snoring, you may be reluctant to slumber in fear of embarrassing yourself or disrupting those around you.
Let’s face it: Beyond the fact that the seat keeps you upright, polyurethane foam and a wool blend aren’t the most comfortable fabric duo when it comes to sleeping. And don’t even get us started on the pillows and blankets that airlines provide for red-eyes (and make hospital beds feel like a stay at a five-star resort). Many seats are simply not designed with lumbar support in mind, causing significant strain on your neck, legs, and lower back.
Poor pre-flight preparation
There are certain pre-flight moves you can take into consideration to increase your chances of getting sound sleep and certain behaviors to try or avoid. These may include:
- Flying direct to avoid layovers interrupting continuous rest
- Avoiding eating or drinking to minimize bathroom breaks
- Limiting alcohol intake — it may make you feel tired, but your sleep quality will likely be poor and inconsistent
- Dressing in layers to quickly and easily accommodate changes in environment
- Packing sleep-enhancing essentials (more below)
How to overcome plane insomnia
Arezzolo has some tips and tricks to help with each of the in-flight annoyances that may inhibit sleep along the way. After all, you have nothing to lose except the sleep you wouldn’t be getting anyway. Arezzolo breaks down her favorite pieces of advice, which directly correlate to the aforementioned issues you may face onboard.
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Reduce light and noise
- What you can do: Avoid using your phone two hours prior to sleeping. While smaller and seemingly less impactful, the screen brightness has the same effect as an overhead light or TV screen.
- What you can bring: Sleep with an eye mask with built-in headphones. “I recommend the Harmony Mask because it hits the pressure points around the eyes, promoting relaxation. It also has a highly elastic mesh banding that maximizes ventilation and fit, and has a 10-hour audio playback that is perfect for longer flights.”
- What you can do: Don’t consume alcohol, which relaxes the tissues in your throat, making snoring louder. Also refrain from wearing strong perfumes or colognes, which can act as allergens and have the potential to block or irritate airways.
- What you can bring: a nasal dilator. “By gently opening the airways, you help yourself and others sleep better because your snoring is reduced,” suggests Arezzolo. “I recommend Mute Snoring, which has a 75% success rate. It also comes in three sizes, so you can find the right fit for you.”
Alleviate seat discomfort
- What you can do: Wear light, breathable clothing in natural fibers, ideally loose-fitting for ease and motion.
- What you can bring: Pack travel socks and actually wear them. If the urge to use the restroom arises, you won’t have to fumble through darkness to put your shoes back on. Also, footwear feels restrictive and minimizes ways to tuck your feet around you. Also, plan to invest in a neck pillow, which offers more support than an airline-provided pillow.
Prepare in advance
- What you can do: Start to adjust your sleep and wake times to your destination time zone over the week prior to travel. “Sleep more in time with your future time zone and factor this into when you should be sleeping on the plane, too.” Similarly, wind back or forward your eating times. This can have a direct influence on your circadian rhythm, which you want to keep consistent, no matter where your journey takes you.
- What to bring: Consider light therapy glasses. Many models, such as these from Luminette, mimic natural sunlight and accommodate the daily routine that works best for you.
Can a neck pillow really help you sleep on a plane?
While many travelers swear by the neck pillow, others use it only as a punch line, claiming that it does absolutely nothing in the conquest to fall asleep.
“Neck pillows are a worthwhile investment,” asserts Arezzolo, but it’s important to find one that actually works effectively.
These are the three criteria to keep in mind while shopping:
- Support. “Seek one that is soft and comfortable, but still provides the right level of support for your neck to ensure your head is kept upright and aligned with the spine.”
- Size. “Size is another factor and, ideally, the one you choose should fit your [shoulder] frame.”
- Fabric. “Fabric is another important consideration. Ideally, a thermo-regulating natural fiber such as bamboo or cotton is ideal, as this can help absorb excess heat should you sweat.”
No matter the approach, sleeping on planes is not outside the realm of possibility. But don’t beat yourself up if you find yourself tossing and turning within the confines of an uncomfortable seat. Being unable to nod off is what makes you, well, human. And you can certainly bank on the adrenaline of travel (and the prospect of caffeine) to get you through what will undoubtedly be a trying day. Just be sure to mirror your typical sleep routine and habits as soon as you arrive at your destination. Bon voyage!