Sleeping Well: Don’t Let Duck Brain Keep You Awake

September 11, 2019


Do you wake up tired and sleepy after the first night in a strange hotel room or your new VRBO?  If so, you are in good company.  Scientists are discovering that when sleeping in a new place, only half our brain is actually sleeping.   The other half of our brain stays at least partially awake and alert, probably as a defense mechanism.   We call this duck brain.

Turns out, this is a common defense mechanism in other creatures like dolphins and birds.  Ducks in particular sleep one half of their brain at a time, literally with one eye open for predators.

While ducks commonly sleep half a brain at a time, fortunately for us humans generally both sides of our brains are sleeping by the second night in a new place.

Here are some ways to avoid the effects of duck brain the next time you travel:

  • If you are going on a short trip, take your pillow with you. If you are going on a longer trip like a week at a vacation home, take your favorite sheets with you.  In either case, be sure to wash them with your regular laundry detergent before you leave.  The familiar feel and smell of your own sheets and pillow may help you feel more at home when you travel, telling your body (and brain!) it’s safe to sleep.
  • If you are traveling for something important like a big presentation, try going out two days ahead of time. You may suffer from duck brain that first night in the hotel, but then sleep better the second night, leaving you well rested and ready for your big presentation on day three.
  • Surround yourself with a few familiar items. No one wants to lug a giant suitcase full of knickknacks from home, but small items that remind you of home (like your alarm clock and favorite pajamas) make a strange place feel more comfortable and easier to sleep in.
  • When traveling, focus on using the same bedtime routine as you do at home. This will let your body know it’s time to sleep, helping you fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer.  You can read more about the benefits of a bedtime routine here.

Hopefully by following these simple tips you will find yourself sleeping better the next time you travel.  If you want to read more about duck brain, here’s a fascinating article from our friends at NPR.