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6 Tips for Sleeping on a Plane

Jodi Helmer
by Jodi Helmer
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6 Tips for Sleeping on a Plane

Traveling over the forest and through the woods to grandmother’s house (or an exotic beach destination) often requires hopping on a plane. More than 50 million Americans book air travel during the holidays — and it’s a safe bet a lot of those passengers are hoping to squeeze in some shut-eye during long flights.

While you might not have any trouble getting a restful slumber if you ponied up for the lie-flat seats in first class, it can be a little harder to sleep while you’re crammed into the middle seat in row 23.

So instead of binge-watching movies and snacking on stale peanuts during a long flight, follow these six tips to get some solid plane sleep.

BRING THE COMFORTS OF HOME

You won’t get a pillow or a blanket in coach, so it’s a good idea to bring one from home, advises Charlene Gamaldo, MD, medical director for the Johns Hopkins Sleep Disorders Center.

“At home, you’d naturally go to sleep with a pillow and blanket,” she says. “Having those familiar comforts will make it easier to fall asleep on the plane.”

A neck pillow provides essential support that can keep you from waking up with a crick in your neck and a blanket protects against the cool air on the plane — just remember to buckle your seatbelt over top of the blanket so flight attendants don’t have to wake you to make sure it’s fastened.

CREATE A SENSE OF CALM

Whether it’s the glare from a laptop on the adjacent tray table, the sound of a screaming toddler or the harsh cabin lights, plane travel is a perfect recipe for sensory overload. Gamaldo recommends earplugs and an eye mask to minimize the sights and sounds that can keep you from falling asleep — but offers a word of caution.

“Some airlines won’t let you wear an eye mask or noise-canceling headphones during safety announcements so don’t think you can sit down, shut out all of the stimuli and fall asleep as soon as you get on the plane,” she explains.

When you’ve reached a comfortable cruising altitude and you’re ready to tuck in, Michael J. Breus, PhD, a sleep specialist and founder of The Sleep Doctor, suggests a calming breathing technique: Inhale for four seconds, hold for seven seconds, exhale for eight seconds and repeat 10 times. This lowers your heart rate, which makes it easier to fall asleep.

PICK THE RIGHT SEAT

The plushest accommodations are at the front of the plane. In coach, the seats are getting smaller. USA Today reported the average seat width in economy class has shrunk to 17 inches (or less), while the pitch — the distance the seat reclines — is a mere 28 inches on some airlines. Trying to sleep in such a small space presents challenges, but Breus notes that some seats are better than others for getting rest.

Breus loves SeatGuru, a website that lets you check the best seats on the plane for your specific aircraft and flight. As a general rule, he suggests steering clear of middle seats and avoiding seats near the galleys and bathrooms because these tend to be crowded, noisier and smellier than other areas of the plane. The best general spot: A window seat.

“You can put a pillow against the fuselage and lean on it, which makes it easier to fall asleep, especially for the 75% of people who are side sleepers,” he says. “Some passengers will go as far as choosing a seat on the side of the plane that lets them curl up on their preferred side for sleeping.”

The window seat also minimizes disruptions from other passengers climbing over you to get to the bathroom. If you’re tall, Gamaldo suggests choosing an aisle seat for some additional legroom.

STEER CLEAR OF SCREENS

It’s almost impossible to find a row where a passenger isn’t working on a laptop, playing a game on their smartphone or watching a movie, but screens and sleep are a bad combination. Research published in the journal PLOS ONE found exposure to the blue lights on high-tech screens was associated with poorer sleep quality and duration.

“The blue light signals your brain to stop producing melatonin, [a hormone that regulates the sleep/wake cycle],” he explains.

If you can’t imagine a long flight without your favorite TV shows, Breus suggests investing in special glasses that block blue light. A 2017 study found wearing “blue blockers” while looking at a smartphone, tablet or television screen helped boost melatonin levels up to 58%, making it easier to fall asleep.

No glasses? No screens, Breus advises. “It’ll be much harder to fall asleep if you’ve been staring at a screen,” he adds.

AVOID ALCOHOL

Ordering a glass of chardonnay might seem like the perfect way to relax on a long flight, but don’t be fooled into thinking it’ll help you slip into dreamland at 30,000 feet. In fact, 2018 research showed even one drink impaired sleep quality and moderate alcohol consumption lowered restorative sleep quality by 24%.

“Nightcaps do not work,” says Gamaldo. “Alcohol might help you fall asleep, but it metabolizes so quickly that it can actually cause insomnia.”

You should definitely avoid alcohol if you’ve popped anti-anxiety medication before takeoff. These drugs, which Gamaldo notes are often prescribed to nervous flyers, do not mix with alcohol.

EAT RIGHT

The foods you choose at the airport or nosh on during your in-flight a snack can impact how well you sleep. A small study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found eating too close to bedtime had a negative impact on sleep quality.

If you’re famished, opt for a light snack over a heavier meal. Tart cherry juice, pumpkin seeds and almonds — all foods shown to make you sleepy, according to Gamaldo — are good choices. Steer clear of carbonated beverages and spicy foods.

“You could end up feeling gassy or developing acid reflux, and it’s nearly impossible to sleep when you’re feeling uncomfortable,” says Breus.

While we can’t guarantee you’ll get great rest with your seat in the upright position, a little preparation can make it much easier to fall asleep on a plane, leaving you well-rested to enjoy your trip as planned.

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About the Author

Jodi Helmer
Jodi Helmer

Jodi Helmer writes about health and wellness for publications like WebMD, AARP, Shape, Woman’s Day, Arthritis Today and Costco Connection among others. She often comes up with the best story ideas while hiking with her rescue dogs. You can read Jodi’s work or follow her on Twitter @helmerjodi.

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