How to Sleep on a Plane: 13 Tips for Your Next Flight, According to a Sleep Expert

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Stale air, screaming toddlers, numb butts—there are many reasons why most of us aren’t able to fall asleep on planes. The struggle is real, and you’ve tried everything, but it doesn’t have to be so impossible. Our 13 tips for how to sleep on a plane will take you on a nonstop journey to nap city.

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1. Pick A Window Seat

You might not always have the option to choose your seat—thanks, basic economy—but when you do, Sarah Anderson, a sleep expert at Zoma Sleep, recommends picking a window seat rather than an aisle one since it gives you a flat surface to rest against, which could be key when it comes to in-flight shut-eye. She also recommends sitting away from the bathroom since it’s a high-traffic area that can be noisy and, duh, disrupt your sleep. Bonus points if you land in an emergency exit seat, which typically has more space, giving you room to stretch your legs (of course, if you’re OK with the extra responsibilities). 

2. Layer Your Clothes

Wearing layers gives you the option of adding or taking off items to suit the plane’s changing temperature, Anderson says. We’ve been on flights that are freezing and flights that are steamy. Prepare for either—think a scarf that can double as a blanket (we recommend a great one below) and a sweater or light jacket you can remove if you get hot—because being too hot or cold are big factors that disrupt sleep.

3. Buy A Pair Of Compression Leggings (or Socks)

Stretchy materials like polyester and elastane are super comfy, as we know from our favorite pair of leggings. For traveling, you should pick up a pair of compression leggings to help your circulation during longer flights. (Read: No more feet—or butts—falling asleep and waking you up.)

4. Invest In A Quality Neck Pillow

A comfy, sturdy neck pillow can help you fall asleep faster by supporting your head and relieving your neck. “Travel pillows can help prevent headaches, stiff necks and shoulder pain,” Anderson says. Her favorite is the Trtl Travel Pillow since it “provides scientifically proven ergonomic neck support” and is also so lightweight at just a half a pound that it can easily be slung on your arm or stuffed into your carry-on. A more traditional pick, the Travelrest neck pillow (below) also helps keep your jaw shut, so the person in 23B doesn’t snap any unflattering open-mouth pics while you’re dozing.

5. Order An Eye Mask

The sun at 35,000 feet? It’s bright. And when the glare is streaming in through your neighbor’s window, you’ll wish you had one of these to block it out so you can stay in sleep mode—especially since there’s a huge difference in the quality of an eye mask you can buy on Amazon and the ones handed out for free on planes. Plus, at $10, you won’t totally beat yourself up if you forget it in the pouch in front of your seat.

6. Eat Light Three Hours Before Takeoff

Our bodies work hard to digest food, so eating a big meal before takeoff could make it more difficult to relax, Anderson says. And definitely try to avoid greasy or spicy foods, which can lead to bouts of acid reflux. Woof. But some foods, she says, like amino acid–rich almonds, which can produce the sleep hormone serotonin, can help promote sleep. Order a warm cup of chamomile tea to pair with your nuts once on board and set yourself up for peaceful slumber.

7. Drink Water Not Wine

If you think a stiff drink or a couple glasses of wine will help you sleep, think again. We know that alcohol-induced sleep is not good-quality sleep, and this translates while flying too. Drink water to stay hydrated by keeping an insulated bottle of H2O in your carry-on at all times. And when the cart rolls around, stay strong. Anderson points out that beverages that include caffeine or processed sugar may cause discomfort or act as a stimulant, which will definitely not help you sleep.

8. Talk To Your Doctor About A Sleep Aid Well Before Takeoff

If you’re on a long-haul flight and can stand to be KO’d for several hours, it’s in your best interest to try a sleep aid. Get the OK from your doctor first on the best solution for you—maybe it’s a supplement like melatonin, an antihistamine like Dramamine or an over-the-counter insomnia med like ZzzQuil. Natural remedies for the drug-averse include essential oils that help induce sleep naturally, like lavender oil, Anderson says.

9. Ignore The Movies And Read A Book

Those monitors on the seat in front of you should stay off if you’re trying to get some shut-eye. “The blue light from electronics can interfere with your body’s natural melatonin production and make it difficult to sleep,” Anderson says. Instead of turning the screen on for entertainment, pack a book or pick up a magazine at the airport newsstand to help you fall asleep on the flight.

10. Recline Your Seat

The best sleeping position is one that puts as little pressure on your back as possible, Anderson says, so it really is worth putting the seat back that extra quarter inch. When you’re ready to recline, take a peek behind you and see if your fellow passenger has a full glass of red wine or a steaming cup of hot tea on their tray and give them a fair warning.

11. Just Go For The Noise-canceling Headphones

They can be pricy, but true noise-canceling headphones will block out all of your least-favorite plane sounds, from the monotonous roar of the engine to screaming babies.

12. Bring One Bag On Board And Check The Rest

Lugging more than one bag onto the plane means that one will inevitably be jammed under the seat in front of you—aka the only room your poor legs have to stretch out. Keep that space open for your crammed joints to unlock every now and then. They’ll thank you when you land.

13. Buckle Your Seatbelt Over Your Blanket

Imagine finally drifting off to sleep only to be awakened by a flight attendant making sure your seatbelt is fastened. In order to rest uninterrupted, stand up with your blanket scarf, wrap it around your body snugly and then sit down and buckle up over your cocoon so it’s in plain sight.

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From 2019-2020 Ariel Scotti held the role of Editor at PureWow covering trends, wellness and more.