sleeping on airplanes

Sleeping on airplanes

Some people have no trouble falling asleep on airplanes.

“They sit down, close the window shade and immediately go to sleep. It doesn’t look like they need any help at all,” said Carol Landis, a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle who researches sleep and the health consequences of disturbed sleep.

Others just stay awake on airplanes no matter what. “Maybe it’s because of an underlying anxiety about the reason for the trip, or about flying, or because they’re trying to sleep sitting up rather than lying down,” said Landis.

But squeezing in even a short in-flight cat nap can make a big difference in your trip. “You’ll feel like a new person when you wake up,” said Sara C. Mednick, author of “Take a Nap! Change Your Life” and an assistant professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside. “All studies show the more you sleep, the better.”

But how can you catch those 40 winks while squeezed in a metal tube going more than 400 mph?

Landis and Mednick agree on the basics.

“Don’t drink caffeinated coffee, tea, soda or eat chocolate or anything else with caffeine for six to eight hours before a flight and during it,” said Landis. Bring along earplugs and an eyeshade to block out light and sound. And pack a pillow and a blanket. “Your body temperature drops when you sleep,” said Mednick, “so being sufficiently warm is important.”

Thinking of taking a sleeping pill? Think twice. “We usually discourage sleeping medications,” said Dr. Flavia Consens, an associate professor at the University of Washington in the departments of neurology and anesthesiology and pain medicine who is a specialist in sleep medicine. “There’s less oxygen while you’re flying, and these medications lessen your drive to breathe. There’s also a concern that when travelers take these pills they don’t move around, and on a long flight, that increases the chances of DVT or deep vein thrombosis,” the formation of blood clots known sometimes as economy class syndrome.

To help passengers snooze, some airlines offer a variety of onboard sleep aids, including mood lighting, “do not disturb” stickers and other amenities.

“Right now the industry standard in long-haul business class is seats that can be turned into horizontal beds,” said Raymond Kollau, founder of “And for some economy class fliers, Air New Zealand offers the ‘Skycouch,’ which is three standard economy seats which can be changed into a single horizontal space.”

On late night departures, All Nippon Airways (ANA) hands out ‘Sleep Support Kits’ that include aromatherapy cards (‘Relax’ and ‘Refresh’) that emit a lavender or an ‘ANA Original Aroma’ scent when a small button is pressed. “And British Airways offers sleep advice podcasts from sleep expert Chris Idzikowski, aka Dr. Sleep, on its in-flight entertainment system and on its website,” said Kollau.

Podcasts and other audio programs that may help you sleep might soon be a regular feature on other airline entertainment systems as well. At the recent Airline Passenger Experience Association conference in Seattle, IFE Services announced that it is now the exclusive seller of the pzizz sleep system to airlines. The software application creates audio soundtracks that promise to either induce a power nap of between 10 and 90 minutes or a deep sleep of up to 10 hours.

If the program is offered for free, it can’t hurt to give it a try, but sleep experts say you’d be better off spending your money on an upgrade instead of a pre-recorded program.

“There’s no research that shows these special programs work,” said Mednick. “There’s music you learn to listen to that might help you sleep, but there’s no music that’s a sleep inducer.”

Instead, Mednick suggests bringing some of your sleep rituals from home with you onto the airplane. “Brush your teeth, change your clothes, and get into something that resembles pajamas. We are creatures of habit, so if you can create or simulate the sleep habits you have at home, the more your body will respond.”

(This originally appeared on Travel’s Overhead Bin)