How Restful is Sleeping in Your Seat?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Nov. 23 2011 3:07 PM

Can You Get a Good Night's Rest in Your Airplane Seat?

The science of sit-sleep.

Sleeping while sitting.
Protester in Zuccotti Park are finding alternate methods of sleeping. But can you get a good night's rest while sitting up?

Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images.

Prohibited from throwing down tarps and sleeping bags in Zuccotti Park, some Occupy Wall Street protesters have taken to wearing Snuggies and sleeping while sitting up. This weekend many Americans will sleep in their seats on flights home to visit their families. Can you get a good night’s sleep in a sitting position?

Yes. As long as you're able to get comfortable and recline slightly, you'll sleep as well sitting up as you would lying down. However, sleeping upright does present some concerns. First of all, sitting motionless with bent limbs for more than a couple of hours can lead to the development of deep vein thrombosis, a type of blood clotting in large veins which can be fatal if it travels to the lungs. For this reason, passengers should remember to stretch their legs or shift positions periodically, and should avoid strong sleeping pills that may immobilize them. One study found that travelers are three times more likely to develop DVT when taking flights of three hours or more. For the best slumber, sleep experts suggest sitting back at an angle of at least 40 degrees.

While it's certainly possible to get a good night's rest while seated, the practice is very rare in human society. People tend to sleep lying down even in foraging and nomadic cultures that don't use any bedding materials to cushion the ground. There are exceptions: Among the Ache hunter gatherers in Paraguay, for example, new mothers sleep while sitting up with their infants in their laps. Some individuals who are morbidly obese or who suffer from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease may have to sleep sitting up in order to breathe properly.

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Some other kinds of animals sleep on their feet. Horses have a locking mechanism in their legs called the “stay apparatus,” which allows them to sleep standing up without having their limbs buckle during the muscle paralysis that arrives with dream sleep. This allows a horse to flee from predators as soon as it awakes. Birds can sleep with one eye open, and flamingos are widely reported to be able to sleep on one leg. Dolphins and whales can sleep both at rest and while swimming, and bottlenose dolphins sleep by shutting down one half of their brain at a time.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Michael Decker of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.

Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer. 

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