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How to Sleep on a Plane for Long Flights (And Short Ones Too!)

 

We've all seen it (and done it): the classic airplane head bob. While on your long flight across the country for business or family vacation, trying to get a little shut-eye can be difficult and annoying. You don't want to land at your final destination unrested and drained.

 

A plane is generally not a comfortable area to sleep in. (TBH, the most accessible place to fall asleep on a plane is first class, but we can't all do that these days!). Besides not being in your own cozy bed at home, airplanes tend not to have enough space to spread your whole body out. Worse, a lot of noise in the cabin could easily interrupt your precious hours of sky sleep.

 

Getting a good sleep while soaring up in the sky might be challenging to achieve. But don't worry! Try one or two of these pro tips and get that rest you so desperately need on your next airplane flight.

 

 

Why Is It So Hard to Fall Asleep on a Plane?

 

First of all, it depends upon where your seat is. Of course, many passengers prefer the window seat for sleeping because you can lean your head against the airplane "wall." That said, you're going to need an aisle seat to be able to stretch out a little bit.

 

(Plus, if your seat is at the plane's back end, the tendency for noise might be exaggerated further because of the plane's engine. Arguably the worst seat for sleeping is the very back of the airplane.)

 

Obviously, if you can get the exit row seats, there's much more room for your legs and feet to stretch out, like you would in bed or on the couch. Of course, the food and beverage cart will likely come by in the middle of the flight, so that's something else to consider. AKA, if your feet are hanging out in the aisle...watch out! ;)

 

Exit rows, aisle or window seats, and anywhere that's relatively close to the front of the plane: these are generally considered the best seats on a plane for sleeping. Middle seats? Not so much. Too much happening on either side of you, and very little wiggle room.

 

But let's cut to the chase: the real problem with sleeping on a plane is that you're sitting up straight!

 

Here's why: Our heart needs to beat and to be able to pump blood through our body system, opposing gravity. Gravity wants to pull it all down. When you lie flat, your heart doesn't need to work as much. Most people don't know this, but you need a heartbeat of roughly 60 beats per minute (60 BPM) or below to enter into a state of sleepiness.

 

So, when you are sitting up, your heartbeat can't get that low very easily — one of the reasons why people say that it's impossible to fall asleep on an airplane.

 

What Is Jet Lag?

We need to take a quick detour on our scheduled trip here to clarify some crucial matters regarding airplanes and sleep.

 

To be clear, jet lag is a huge problem for almost any traveler traveling over multiple time zones. For instance, if you fly from New York to Singapore, it is an 18-hour and 45-minute non-stop flight. You may arrive in Singapore at 8 a.m., while in New York, it's 8 p.m. The enormous time difference creates the unpleasant experience we know and recognize as the hallmark symptoms of jet lag.

 

Every individual has a circadian rhythm, also known as the body's internal clock, which is powered by approximately 20,000 nervous cells that use various external cues, such as day and night or meal time. This is also responsible for our sleep patterns because it will tell you when to wake up and when to sleep by sending signals of alertness and sleepiness to the brain.

 

So, if you maintain a fairly consistent day-to-day routine, your body will get used to that schedule and establish an exact set of internal rhythms to support it.

 

That's the main reason why your body will be so confused when you shift into a new time zone! It might take a few hours to adjust and learn new movements. Not getting sleep on your flight complicates matters even more.

 

Building on the hypothetical trip above... Naturally, your body will still respond to Eastern Standard Time cues, even though you're 12 hours ahead in Singapore Standard Time. You might feel sleepy while others are up and ready to start their day.

 

The good thing is that the effects wear off once your body acclimates to the new schedule, which is why jet lag is labeled a "temporary sleep disorder." Over time, our body will self-adjust to each new time zone.

 

 

Symptoms of Jet Lag

Symptoms can vary from each to person, but the most common symptoms of jet lag include the following:

 

  • Hard to fall asleep at night
  • Excessive Daytime Sleepiness
  • Sleep paralysis 
  • Stomach problems ("traveler's stomach" or "traveler's diarrhea")
  • Fatigue
  • Emotional difficulties
  • Attention difficulties
  • Uneasiness
  • Sudden loss of appetite
  • Headache
  • Stress
  • Nausea
  • Motion sickness
  • Poor sleep quality

If it seems like this list includes every symptom under the sun (and moon), then you're not mistaken. Lack of sleep (and, by extension, jet lag) can cause many health issues — physical, mental, and emotional.

 

What Are the Best Ways to Sleep on an Airplane?

Now, let's return to our scheduled route. Here are some excellent ways to have a good night's sleep during your next airplane flight.

 

1. Look for the seat map

First, look at the seat map and find the best seat in the specific plane you are flying on. Check a website like seatguru.com or seatexpert.com. These websites can tell you if there will be a lot of crowds near the lavatory or down by the galley, as well as to see if there are any economy seats that have extra legroom, or even if wider seats exist on the plane. But as much as possible, if your primary goal is to sleep, try to book the window seat. In general, many people prefer the window seat for sleeping: you can lean your head against the fuselage, making it a little easier to get that shut-eye. Another thing you don't have to think about: the interruptions from fellow passengers using the bathroom or the beverage cart.

 

2. Bring your own blanket

Every plane will be a little different, but many planes tend to be cold, as you expect. The blankets you get on the aircraft are not usually the most comfortable. So it's a good idea to pack a personal blanket, scarf, or shawl so that you don't have to rely on those tiny airplane blankets. The best option is to buy a travel blanket typically designed for people bringing it on the plane. Regular blankets are too bulky, especially if you fly with carry-on only. 

 

3. Wear Compression Socks

Complementary with the blanket, always wear compression socks. It can often be cold near the airplane floor, and you don't want to have a long-haul flight with cold feet. I'll also help your blood circulation and prevent swelling in your feet and ankles that can happen during a long flight. The more comfortable your feet and legs are, the greater your chance of falling asleep mid-flight.

 

4. Dress in comfortable clothes

Dress for comfort. Wear breathable clothes, preferably loose-fitting and light fabrics, if you want to get some decent sleep on the plane. This will help you to get the most comfortable sleep.

 

5. Use an organic neck pillow

One of the things that every expert says is that you need a neck pillow. It would be best if you had proper support for your head and neck to avoid breaking your neck while sleeping and reduce head movements. Our professional suggestion: the organic Kapok travel pillow from SLEEP365®.

 

6. Make use of an eye mask

A sleep mask is essential to block out all possible light exposure while trying to sleep, since the plane has a lot of unexpected light. Someone may randomly open the window mid-flight, or a flight attendant might suddenly turn on the cabin lights to serve food, meals, snacks, or beverages. The more your mask blocks out those light sources, the better your chances of quality sleep.

 

7. Wear noise-canceling headphones or earplugs

 

It's a complete nightmare if you forget your headphones or ear plug. I know you don't want to hear all the noise around you, like babies crying, young children playing on iPads, or your fellow seatmates' aggressive snoring. In addition, the aircraft noise can grow quite loud, as mentioned above, especially when your seat is at the plane's back end.

 

8. Listen to pink noise

Progressive muscle relaxation can be achieved by simply listening to a guided meditation, nature sounds, or other calming noises. According to experts, listening to "pink noise" is a huge help to get you to sleep as it unwinds your mind and brings you into a deep sleep. 

 

9. Uncross legs and use a footrest

Crossing your legs can limit blood flow and raise the chances of a blood clot on long flights. Keep both legs straight and position a slight bend in your knees instead.

 

10. Power off your devices

Blue light (as in the bright lights from your cell phone and laptop) cannot only keep you awake but may also disrupt your sleep. Turning off your devices anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes before planning to sleep is always a good idea.

 

11. Stay away from alcohol

Some travelers use alcohol, presuming it can help them fall asleep faster. Unfortunately, that is not quite the whole truth. While alcohol makes you feel sleepy, it actually keeps you from entering the deeper stages of sleep. So, people who drink alcohol on the plane don't usually get quite as restful sleep. Plus, when they wake up at their destination, they aren't fresh in the morning (or whatever time it may be!). Solution: grab herbal tea instead.

 

12. Take melatonin

Melatonin is a sleep aid you can pack with your carry-on if you're trying to sleep on a plane. This naturally occurring supplement can help tell your brain that it's time to rest and unwind, even if it's not your usual time zone or bedtime. Melatonin can be an extra push to help you get snoozing, bed time or not.

 

13. Buckle up the seat belt over your blanket

You certainly don't want to wake up after it took you hours to find the proper position and fall asleep, only for the flight attendant to wake you up with instructions to fasten your seat belt due to turbulence ahead. The problem is it's already fastened — it's just under your blanket. Always fasten your seat belt over your blanket to avoid that unpleasant scenario. The flight attendant will know you're safe and won't wake you.

 

14. Lean back with appropriate support

Put a pillow behind your back. Since a plane is not anyone's regular place to sleep, some people need to lay something soft and comfy behind their back. This will allow your body to keep its natural S-curve as well.

 

15. Stay Hydrated

It's recommended to stay hydrated during a long flight to prevent dehydration and "dry mouth" when you wake up. Bring your own tumbler so you don't have to wait for the stewardess to come down and serve you water when you feel dehydrated.

 

  

Wrapping Up

 

Almost all travelers have difficulty falling asleep and finding the most comfortable position on a plane. So, remember to have everything you need on board, whether it's an overnight flight or a long day of air travel. Future You will thank Past You every time.

 

Are you looking for a bit of help to get sleep on a long plane flight? Check out this incredible travel pillow, made especially for sleeping in unusual places and spaces.

 

If you have any questions at all... Just click the little chat button on your screen, and one of our sleep specialists will help you out in no time.