Congratulations, you’ve taken the first critical step toward achieving better sleep! Seeking out a physician’s advice may be the biggest hurdle some of us face.
Once we get there, however, the process continues with visits to the sleep clinic. You’ve likely already had a physical evaluation, filled out at least one questionnaire, and shared your medical history. Now you’re in the queue to actually have a diagnostic test called a sleep study (also known as polysomnography).
To be clear, this blog post refers to overnight, in-lab sleep studies (polysomnography), not to the HSAT, or home sleep apnea test, which takes place in your own bedroom.
I’ve had multiple sleep studies myself. I’m a sleep technologist as well. Let me help you prepare for your overnight in-lab test.
My first test occurred before I became a sleep health professional. Back then, I had a lot of questions and did not know what to expect. But now I can share some insider tips to help you get through the uncertainties of this unique diagnostic procedure.
Preparing for your sleep study
Below is a list of mental and physical preparations you can take before you arrive at the sleep clinic for your study.
Follow the directions that the sleep lab provides for you prior to your study.
All labs require paperwork they will send home with you, or mail to you, before your study. It’s important to read through all of that information. There might be questionnaires you need to fill out. You might also find specific instructions for preparing and packing for your visit. This post does not substitute for directions provided to you by your sleep clinic.
Packing recommendations for a typical overnight sleep study.
Alluding to the point: bring all of your paperwork, and make sure it’s filled out before you arrive.
Bring comfortable clothes to sleep in. Pajamas, nightgowns, tee shirts and shorts or loose pants or sweatpants are all fine. Do not expect to sleep in the nude. You may need to leave the privacy of your room, for one thing. Hospital labs might have hospital gowns just in case, but stand-alone sleep labs don’t. And clothing can actually help keep your sensors in place throughout the night.
Feel free to bring a favorite pillow, blanket, or plush item if it will help you fall asleep faster. Yes, even adults have teddy bears! Don’t worry: you won’t be judged.
If you normally take medications at night (including pain medication, medication for heartburn, nasal spray, and maintenance drugs, such as insulin), bring them. Sleep technologists cannot legally dispense medications. If you’re not in a hospital, you won’t be able to get them from a drugstore or pharmacy if you forget them. Exception: if your sleep specialist instructs you to skip certain medications prior to your sleep study, please follow their directions. There are reasons why certain drugs (such as stimulants or antidepressants) may be problematic for test data interpretation. When in doubt, ask your doctor.
If the doctor has prescribed for you a sleep aid, bring it even if you don’t think you’re going to need it. IMPORTANT: Do not take any sleep aid until your sleep tech tells you it’s okay.
Bring personal toiletries, but please keep strongly scented items at home. Most clinics are “fragrance free.” Sleep labs do not typically provide the following: toothbrush, toothpaste, dental floss, makeup remover, deodorant, hair styling appliances, adult diapers, or feminine products.
Additional items you can bring that may help you fall asleep include reading materials (but leave bright LED booklights at home), white noise devices, eye masks, earplugs, or relaxing activities like puzzle books, coloring books, or knitting. If you use videos or television to fall asleep, check with the lab to see what their policies are.
You can bring your smartphone, e-book reader, or tablet, but prepare to turn these off in advance of your “Lights Out” time. You may not be allowed to use them after your study starts. Headsets (even wireless) are not a good idea, either. They generate electronic signals that can impede your study.
Pets are allowed in sleep clinics only with medical authorization.
If you need a light snack at bedtime or for some time in the middle of the night, pack these. A refrigerator may or may not be available to you, so inquire within if you need one.
Bring a change of clothes for the following day.
Smoking and vaping are generally discouraged, but if you have a problem with sleeping because you need to smoke, check with the clinic to see what their policies are before bringing cigarettes or other smoking paraphernalia.
Things to do (or not do) on the day of your sleep study
Facial hair should be shaved or at least trimmed.
Nail polish on the index fingers should be removed. If you use a polish that requires soaking, please do this ahead of time! Dark polish, in particular, can block the sensor reading your blood oxygen saturation and pulse rates provided by the fingertip pulse oximeter.
If you have special needs, let the sleep specialist know before you arrive. These special needs situations may be necessary to address and accommodate ahead of time, as not all sleep labs provide the needed items. For instance, you:
- experience nocturnal enuresis (bedwetting) and need protective adult undergarments
- wear a hearing aid
- use an ambulatory medical device (walker, cane, or chair) and may need assistance walking without it
- can only sleep in a recliner
- need a wedge pillow to help you sleep
- require help getting in and out of bed (by way of a Hoyer lift) due to obesity or medical condition
- employ a caregiver that needs to attend the study with you (most sleep labs do not employ nurses, and sleep techs are not trained in nursing protocols)
A quick shower before the study is helpful, but if you wash your hair, it must be dry before the study and you will must avoid using hair products.
Eat a normal meal before you arrive; it’s not recommended that you bring in “outside food” to a sleep study due to most labs’ “fragrance-free” policies and because the sleep suite is not going to have room or space to make or consume a meal.
If you think you’re going to be late, CALL AHEAD and let the lab know. Sleep techs have a lot of work to do to prepare patients for sleep studies and often have 2 or more patients to tend to. Some labs have a policy that requires you to reschedule if you are late more than 30 minutes.
If you think you’re going to be early, plan to sit and wait in the lab waiting room prior to your study. Sleep techs have preparations they need to complete before handling patients, and there won’t be a receptionist in front to help you before your allotted arrival time.
Go about your day as normal. Don’t add or subtract activity or sleep to “prepare.” This include napping (when you don’t normally nap) or not napping (when you normally do). It also includes getting up many hours earlier than usual to “help” you fall asleep during the study, or going in for a high-energy workout right before your test (when you normally workout in the morning). All of these decisions may lead to skewed test results, requiring a repeat study.
If you’ve experienced an unexpected disruption in your day (the loss of a pet, a car accident, a major work-related stressor, devastating family news, etc.), communicate this to your sleep tech. If you think you might not be able to sleep, you can reschedule for a more amenable time.