Sleep Lab: An Inside Look

One woman’s exhausted journey into the world of sleep science.

From the WebMD Archives


Cozy But Wired

Fast forward again one week. I arrive at the sleep lab at 10 p.m., the only car in a lonely parking lot in the middle of a suburban medical complex. I carry a small bag containing pajamas in one hand and a pillow in the other. Sleep labs frequently recommend that participants bring their own pillows in the hopes of replicating home conditions. It’s something of an absurd goal, since I rarely spend the night flat on my back with wires and leads stuck to my head and a stranger in the next room watching my every move.

The lab technician greets me at the door and takes me to a surprisingly cozy suite. I expected a hospital setting, with blinking lights and monitors and rolling beds with rails. Instead the décor is distinctly hotel-like, with a queen-sized mattress and matched set of heavy oak dressers.

I change into my pajamas and sit obediently in a chair to fill out paperwork while the attendant preps the monitoring equipment. She lays out a complex network of color-coded leads, straps, and gadgets and starts attaching them to my head and body.

The first leads are taped to my shins to monitor for restless legs syndrome. Next, a pair of monitors is taped to my chest and ribs. Then a microphone is taped to my throat, electrodes are stuck to my temples and jaw, and a nasal cannula with two tiny hair-like wires is attached to my nose in order to measure the force and pace of my breathing. Finally, it’s time to adhere the multitude of brain monitors to my scalp.

Prior to this experience, I’d worried that the brain electrodes would be attached with tape, a scary thought for anyone with hair. Instead the leads are mashed into great goopy dollops of gelatinous adhesive jelly and squished onto my head. The goo is the least pleasant part of the experience, having a consistency somewhere between petroleum jelly and all-weather silicone caulk. The technician bluntly tells me to block out my morning for the laborious task of shampooing it all out.

And now it is finally time to get into bed. The technician plugs the wires into a shoebox-sized device and tells me it will be my bedside companion for the night. If I roll over, the box rolls with me. If I get up to use the restroom, the box comes with me. I settle down, say goodnight to the box, and try to sleep.