Getting Better Sleep: Can These Apps and Devices Help?

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When technology and sleep are mentioned in the same sentence, it’s usually to warn iPhone addicts or Netflix binge-watchers to keep their apps and devices out of the bedroom as much as possible. But are there some apps and devices that can help, not hurt, how well you sleep at night?

As Molly Wood reported for The New York Times late in 2014, a variety of consumer devices can track sleep patterns, quantifying how long and how deeply you rest, how often you get up, and even your heart rate and respiration. And while none of those gadgets can solve issues like insomnia or apnea, they can be “illuminating” for people who are trying to figure out why they’re still tired after eight hours of sleep.

For anywhere between $50 and $200, you can get an activity tracker — familiar names include the Jawbone UP line, Fitbit, Basis Peak, and Microsoft Band, and newcomers include devices like Lark, — which you’ll wear like a watch as you sleep. At the same price point or above, you can find headbands, chest straps, and bedside monitors that can watch your breathing. And, Wood notes, the “truly sleep obsessed” can spend thousands of dollars on a bed that will track your sleeping habits and enable you to make adjustments.

While some activity trackers don’t track heart rate or respiration, which help them more accurately distinguish between light and deep sleep,  experts say that respiration and heart rate alone aren’t as telling as the monitoring of brain activity, eye movement, and muscle activity that’s routinely done in medical sleep clinics.

Another caveat is the that not everyone finds it comfortable to wear a device to bed. So a crop of bedside devices, like the Resmed S+, the Withings Aura, and the Beddit, exist either solely next to the bed or include a mattress pad or mattress strip to track your sleep without requiring you to wear a wristband or a chest strap. New on the scene is the Chrona, which turns any pillow into a “smart pillow” that can help you track and optimize your sleep. Or try the Luna, a mattress cover that tracks your sleep and adjusts its own temperature to make you more comfortable.

Another wearable-free way to track your sleep is with a “smart bed,” such as a Sleep Number bed equipped with the company’s SleepIQ technology, which uses a sensing pad and a smartphone app to monitor sleep. The mattress pad tracks your heart rate, respiration, and movement, and the app for iOS or Android breaks down how the night went.

Like many other sleep-tracking apps — connected with wearable or tracking devices or not — Sleep Number’s SleepIQ app won’t really tell most users much that they don’t know already. But a variety of apps aim to help you fine-tune your sleep habits and bedtime routine, like SleepGenius, which is based on NASA research, or Sleepbot, Sleep Cycle, or Sleep Better from Runtastic.

While you can download a plethora of apps that aim to track your sleep habits, it’s worth noting that many are going to be inaccurate at least some of the time if they’re relying on the sensors onboard your smartphone alone. However, even when the data collected on your sleep in a given night is inaccurate, over time, it can reveal patterns that you weren’t aware of. But even being hyper-aware of your sleep trends over time isn’t enough to solve serious problems, and there’s no substitute for seeing a physician to diagnose serious sleep problems.

Apps that help you change your pre-bedtime habits — like the many that can guide you through a meditation or relaxation session before you doze off, like Calm — are likely a more promising way to go if you’re looking to improve the quality of the sleep you get each night. If a relaxation session isn’t how you’d prefer to prepare for sleep, then look for apps that can make your favored pre-sleep activities a little more conducive to actually falling asleep. (Another smart way to improve your sleep is to make sure that your environment is sleep-friendly. Try a gadget that accomplishes that with sound, like the Sleep Infuser.)

If you’re a constant ebook reader, take advantage of Oyster’s new Lumin feature that reduces the blue light coming from your phone’s screen when you’re reading late at night. Or if you’re doing more than reading ebooks when you should really be winding down for the night, download F.Lux to get your phone or computer screen to adapt to the time of day. While we’re talking about light, another alternative is to try out a device like the NightWave, which guides you through a pre-sleep relaxation session with light. Or, conversely, concentrate on improving the experience of waking up with a device like the Philips Wake-Up Light.

Sarah Jacobson Purewal reports for CNET that for most people, just focusing on what’s going on in the bedroom isn’t enough to really improve your sleep quality. She argues that sleep data, like any other form of data, is useless when it exists in a vacuum. So she recommends tracking what you eat and drink, monitoring how much you move throughout the day, being mindful of your screen time, and keeping an eye on your environment to find out more about some of the variables that might be affecting your sleep. If you collect some data on each of those, you can look for correlations that even the most sophisticated sleep-tracking app won’t be able to find on its own.

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