How to successfully sleep on the plane, according to a doctor

Maxine McCrann
Originally Published: 

With vaccines widely available, more of us are feeling confident enough to fly again. And while that’s exciting news, there's still the daunting reality of how to actually get some rest when you're on a flight. I can almost never relax enough to drift off, no matter how many slow belly breaths I take or soothing in-flight nature tracks I listen to.

The thing is, planes aren’t exactly conducive to sleep, Ramiz Fargo, a sleep medicine specialist at Loma Linda University Health, explains. The seats are cramped, he points out, offering little room to recline or stretch our legs. Flight attendants frequently walk up and down the aisles. The cabin can be bright and noisy. And now, we're all wearing masks on the plane; and while face-coverings are a necessary and powerful tool against infection, they can feel really uncomfortable to sleep in. “It’s unfortunately a lot different than going into a quiet room and lying down to go to sleep,” he says.

That’s for sure. Thankfully, Fargo tells me that there are a few steps you can take to improve your odds of getting some sweet, sweet sleep on your next trip.

Book a red-eye

Not only do red-eyes tend to be less crowded, Fargo says, they’re designed to help you sleep: The airline typically turns the lights down and keeps announcements to a minimum.

Secure the (carry-on) bag

Fargo suggests packing items that’ll help counteract the physical discomfort that can keep you from dozing off, like a neck pillow, eye mask, and noise cancelling headphones.

Dress for success

Wear comfy clothes, Fargo says, specifically thin layers you can easily take off or throw on depending on the temperature inside the cabin. He also recommends slip-on shoes that you can remove or slide back on if you need to get up and use the bathroom.

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And thankfully, the federal mask mandate for travelers is still in place, so make sure your mask is on securely before you try and drift off to ensure a flight attendant doesn't have to wake you up to remind you. Even as the country reopens, keep in mind that you’ll be in very close quarters and breathing recirculated air with potentially more than a hundred passengers, Fargo says.

Pick the window seat, if possible

That way, you'll be sitting next to only one person and can lean against the wall if you want, Fargo says. Best of all, you can control the window shade to your heart’s content. There's also been a little bit of research that points to window seats as the best place to avoid COVID-19 infection.

Use the bathroom beforehand

To keep nature from calling mid-snooze, Fargo recommends going to the bathroom before trying to fall asleep. “The nice thing about the window seat is, once you go to the bathroom and come back… and somebody else wants to go the bathroom, they’re not going to be stepping over you," he says.

Stay satiated

If you don’t want a growling stomach to interrupt your efforts to catch some z’s, eat any snacks the airline provides, Fargo says, or nosh on something before boarding. Don’t go ham, though, since feeling overly full can make it harder to fall asleep.

Avoid caffeine or alcohol

Since caffeine is a stimulant, Fargo suggests opting for decaf or water instead of the complimentary coffee. And while you might think that a whiskey nightcap will put you down, “when the alcohol gets metabolized throughout the night, it actually becomes a sleep disrupter,” he explains. Ultimately, it can backfire, leading you to wake up periodically.

Take some melatonin

When the lights dim at night, your brain secretes a chemical called melatonin that helps you feel sleepy, Fargo says. Taking a melatonin supplement could nudge that process along.

Skip the in-flight movie, and listen to music or a podcast instead

Since the blue light emitted by screens can block melatonin secretion, Fargo recommends avoiding them about 30 minutes to an hour before you want to sleep. Listen to a podcast or some chill music — anything that’ll keep your mind occupied, but nothing that requires intense concentration, and nothing too stimulating, he says (so maybe not your screamo playlist).

Let’s face it: A tiny airline seat can’t compete with your bed at home. But hopefully, these tips will help you make do. Or, if you're really desperate, you could give up on trying to fall asleep altogether.