Here’s How You Can Sleep Better on Planes

7 minute read

Legroom in economy seating has lessened over time. American Airlines, Southwest, Delta, and United have reportedly each removed between two to five inches in the distance between rows since the 1980s. This means passengers now have to crouch into even tinier spaces to get a good rest.

If you’re traveling for the holidays, you may be wondering if there is anything you can do to alleviate the situation, especially if you have an overnight flight. TIME spoke with sleep expert Lindsay Browning, who studied insomnia at Oxford University. She says that while no night of sleep on a plane will be equivalent to sleeping in your own bed, if passengers plan ahead, they can improve the chances that they are able to get some rest on the flight.

Here's what you can do.

Start living on your new time zone’s schedule the day before

Browning says that if you are expecting a significant time zone change of three hours or more, one of the most useful things you can do for improving sleep quality is to start eating meals the day before as if you were living in your future time zone. 

“Think about the place you're going to and ask yourself, would you be eating at that time?” says Browning. She says that food on airplanes often is timed to the place of your departure, which can slow down the process of acclimating to a new time zone.

This is also a useful way to think about other routine activities that you might do at the same time each day, like exercise. If you usually exercise at 6:00 a.m. in your current time zone, then start exercising at 6 a.m. in your future time zone the day before your flight.

Plan for light and noise

We all know that bright lights and noise on planes are not very conducive to a good sleep. However, if you plan ahead, there are ways that you can reduce the impact this has on your quality of sleep. Eye masks and ear plugs can be especially helpful.

Browning also recommends avoiding screens, including the built-in screens on the plane, if your goal is to get the best rest you can.

Wear layers

While many people with insomnia struggle to sleep because their bedrooms are too warm, Browning says that on planes, the opposite is often true. “If you get too cold, that's going to disrupt your sleep because you might wake up or be unable to fall asleep,” says Browning.

Fundamentally, people sleep best when they are comfortable, and anything that throws off your body’s comfort levels, including a slightly cold airplane, can be disruptive. Wearing layers helps you be prepared for multiple different temperatures, since you can also take off a layer if you are too warm. You can also bring a blanket if you feel that this would help you stay warm and reminds you of your normal sleep routine.

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Avoid alcohol

Many people make the mistake of drinking an alcoholic beverage on a plane, especially since they are sometimes offered free drinks on flights. While the alcohol can help you fall asleep, it typically makes sleep quality worse. Alcohol can also make your body more dehydrated, which can increase bodily discomfort and ultimately make it more difficult to sleep.

Consider a sleep aid

While regularly relying on over-the-counter sleep aids is usually not helpful for treating conditions like chronic insomnia in the long run, they can be of use for a “one-off” situation like a plane ride.

If you live in America, you may want to consider buying melatonin, which can be helpful for dealing with jetlag and signaling to your body that it’s time to go to sleep. However, melatonin is not available over-the-counter in all countries and research on the long-term effect of daily usage is minimal. It also seems to be most useful for issues related to schedule and sunlight exposure, as opposed to fixing things like discomfort or an overactive mind, which is why Browning suggests that it is not as useful for people who are not switching time zones.

Alternatively drowsy antihistamines like Benadryl, which are available over-the-counter in most countries, can help induce sleepiness for a single night as well. They might be more useful if you are not planning on switching time zones and simply want to induce drowsiness for one night. Similarly to melatonin, Browning does not recommend taking antihistamines on a regular basis to induce sleep.

Place a pillow under the small of your back

Another useful tip is to place a pillow between your lower back and the seat. “You're trying to keep your spine fairly neutral, but of course it is slumped in the chair and you'll find it curved. It can be painful or uncomfortable and this could wake you up, so you might find a pillow behind your back can be helpful,” says Browning.

Ultimately, however, she stresses that what is most comfortable will differ among passengers, and you should pay attention to what makes your own body most at ease. “If you're normally a side sleeper or a back sleeper or a front sleeper, what works best for you may be very different,” she says. 

Use a neck pillow

Many travelers may also find they struggle to fall asleep without neck support. One of the best ways to deal with that is to use a neck pillow designed specifically for flights. There are multiple neck pillow designs to choose from. If you don’t have one, you can try to prop your neck up with the folded pads that are sometimes included on the back of headrests on airplanes.

Remember one night is not the end of the world

No matter what happens, Browning says that it’s really important to remember that it is normal to experience one bad night of sleep every so often. Sometimes, the stress around trying to get a good sleep can actually make people so anxious that they struggle to sleep even more. 

“I see clients who literally will avoid going on holiday because they're scared of getting a bad night of sleep on the plane,” says Browning. “Lots of people sometimes catastrophize and think it’s the end of the world, but the reality is it’s not the end of the world. We all have bad nights of sleep sometimes.”

While one night of sleep will affect cognitive performance the following day, she says so would a cold or an argument with a loved one. These things are unpleasant, but also a regular part of life. To avoid these scenarios altogether isn’t healthy either. 

Browning says that she herself chooses how much she adheres to all of these tips depending on how alert she anticipates needing to be the next day when she lands. “If I'm going on holiday with my family and it doesn't really matter if I'm in my [mental] prime when I get to the destination, then I might have a glass of wine on the plane or meals at the wrong time for my timezones because it doesn't really matter."

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