It’s not your fault!
If you’ve ever traveled with your baby, you’ve probably experienced the difficulties of having your baby sleep in an unfamiliar environment.
It’s not just babies who don’t sleep well in a new environment. All humans (and animals as well) often have a very hard time falling asleep when not in their own bed. The first few nights in a new home, a hotel stay, or a weekend visit to relatives are all things that can throw your sleep off kilter.
Why don’t people sleep well when they’re not in their usual environment?
Ready for something crazy?!
Recently published studies suggest that when you are in an unfamiliar sleep environment, half of your brain stays partially awake the whole night.
Stay with me here.
Before you go to sleep in an new environment, your conscious mind registers that that you’re in a new place. The brain loves what is familiar, because what is familiar feels safe. New Place = Not safe. Queue mental alarm bells. 🚨🚨🚨
(No offense to your mother in law. It’s science).
In order to protect you from potential danger or predators, your brain sleeps differently than it normally would. It sleeps like a dolphin!
In a manner very similar to the way dolphins sleep, your brain actually splits in half for the night. The two halves of your brain take turns sleeping and standing guard. Half your brain sleeps in a normal deep state, and the other half stays partially awake, listening out for any signs, scents or sounds of possible danger.
This form of sleep, called unihemispheric sleep, works well for dolphins. Not so much for humans. Keeping half of your brain on high alert is hard work – not conducive to a restful nights sleep! That’s why you may wake up feeling less rested than usual when you’re not sleeping in your own bed.
When you travel, your baby’s brain has to acclimate to a host of new surroundings: new sights, new smells, new sounds, not to mention a new crib.
(Side note – we don’t often stop to think about what details make up the environments of our babies, but there’s a strong likelihood that your baby is familiar with the sounds of your pipes gurgling and floorboards creaking. He may know the difference between the sound of your footsteps and your husband’s footsteps, too!)
Practically, this can help you be more patient with your baby if he has a hard time sleeping away from home. Having a greater understanding of the actual changes that are occurring within your baby’s brain might make it easier for you when you hear him crying at 4am.
It’s hard to travel with babies. Knowing that sleep will be more difficult will leave you less frustrated if things don’t go as smoothly as you’d hoped.
Always make sure to bring along your white noise machine and some kind of familiar object for your baby, like his usual sleep sack. For some practical tips on traveling with babies and toddlers, you’ll want to take a look at this.