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Do sleep apps work? What are the best?

Do sleep apps work? What are the best?
Grace Sweeney

Grace Sweeney

  • Updated:

It’s easy to understand the appeal of a sleep app. Lack of sleep can mess with our health, our happiness, and our productivity.

Sleeping lady

An app promises an easy fix. It sidesteps those sleep hygiene habits advising us to work out in the morning or stop drinking coffee before 2 p.m.

But, do sleep apps actually work?

Sleep tracking apps have a significant blind spot when it comes to providing accurate insights into your sleep habits. 

Here is a look at what sleep apps can and can’t do, according to science. 

Sleep apps don’t analyze your sleep

Sleep study

Admittedly, we’ve long been confused as to how sleep apps are supposed to work. 

Smartphones can lie right next to you when you hit the sack, but they don’t hook up to your brain or anything. So how can they tell if you’re catching some shallow snoozes or deep in the throes of REM?

The answer is this process called actigraphy. It’s a motion-tracking technology that analyzes each phase of sleep based on what your muscles are up to as you snooze.

How sleep apps work sounds complicated, but it’s pretty simple. Your movements directly correspond with each sleep phase. Your Fitbit or phone analyzes how much you move. Stillness indicates REM, while restlessness indicates light sleep.

When muscles are inhibited, you don’t get up or jump out of bed while sleeping. However, when you toss and turn, your muscles are uninhibited. Apps can also record snoring, which may be a sign of sleep apnea. The apps might be able to help you identify when in your sleep cycle you are waking up. 

If you are showing signs of sleep apnea, it is in your best interest to consult a doctor and seek treatment. 

The benefit of understanding the sleep cycle is that we feel more refreshed if we wake up during light sleep than deep sleep. Understanding when to set your alarm can leave you feeling more refreshed throughout the day. 

Still, doctors don’t agree on whether sleep apps are worthwhile. Columbia University’s Dr. Carl Bazil says, “I think they’re garbage.” 

Bazil told Inverse in an interview that the writer’s sleep data didn’t make sense — stating that one app showed the REM cycle starting way too early. 

So, what are sleep trackers good for?

Now that the bad news is out of the way, it’s worth pointing out that sleep trackers aren’t complete junk science. Doctors say that sleep apps offer a handful of benefits. It’s just important to note that mobile apps don’t paint a complete picture of your sleep habits and health.

It’s kind of like a sleep diary

Sleep diary

Another benefit of these apps is, they function as a digital sleep diary. Some doctors recommend that patients keep a sleep diary. They function as a way to help patients keep track of things like when they went to bed, what they ate, whether they experienced nightmares or restlessness, and more.  

Like fitness trackers, people get bored with tracking their personal data after a few short months. It’s an extra job to do, and it’s hard to identify how actually to leverage that data for a better experience. 

You can use them to spot trends

Man looking at data

If something changes in your life, a sleep app may be able to help you understand how these changes are affecting your sleep. 

Stress can make you more restless in your sleep, so if you’re feeling tired throughout the day, check out your data. Wearing a Fitbit or Jawbone at night can reveal whether you’re tossing and turning more than usual.

You can also learn how alcohol affects your sleep. Many of us live in denial, believing that alcohol makes us fall asleep more easily. In reality, it makes us wake up more often and get a lower quality of sleep. While we do fall asleep faster when under the influence, the effects of alcohol don’t last all throughout the night. As they wear off, quality of sleep diminishes.

Which apps are your best options? 

SleepScore

SleepScore

SleepScore provides more detailed sleep data than most of the competing applications. It comes with a smart alarm that aims to wake you up at the perfect time, preventing groggy mornings.

For $50 a year, SleepScore records sleep data long term and helps you create an improvement plan. The free version tracks sleep, but only for seven days at a time. 

SleepScore has partnered with a company called SlumberType, which offers DNA-based sleep insights. But the use of DNA to analyze health/wellness might also be junk science, so it’s important to take their recommendations with a giant grain of salt. 

SleepScore Download now ►
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Sleep Cycle

Sleep Cycle

Sleep Cycle is a favorite among Apple and Android fans alike. It tracks sleep habits and wakes you up at the optimal time. The smart alarm won’t surprise you. Instead, you’ll select a 30-minute window for your wakeup call. What’s more, Sleep Cycle integrates with Apple Health so that you can analyze sleep habits, as well as your heart rate. 

Sleep Cycle Download Free ►
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Pillow

Pillow

Pillow gives data nuts access to everything they might want to know about their sleep habits. It’s similar to Apple’s built-in sleep tracker, but it comes with a few extra features. For example, you can use the tool to time power naps, recovery naps, and full cycle naps. For the record, who knew there were multiple kinds of naps?

Additionally, Pillow gives you a look at your REM cycles, heart rate, and how long it takes to fall asleep. Maybe it’s not everything you need to know, but it’s useful nonetheless. 

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Other tech on the horizon

Sleep apps leave something to be desired when it comes to analyzing and optimizing sleep. As a result, innovators are thinking up some clever ways to close the knowledge gap. 

There’s Dreem, a headband that measures brain activity. It’s $500 and designed by Yves Behar. The headband tracks sleeping patterns and conducts an initial assessment. Then, users have the option to enroll in a Sleep Restructuring Program. Here, an app will recommend steps toward better sleep. Also, your friends will all be jealous of your awesome new headband! 

Dreem Headband

There’s Dreamlight’s massive sleep mask that uses your 23andMe results to recommend adjustments to your sleep habits. It then projects infrared light to calm the user into a meditative state. This one kinda makes you look like Cyclops from X-Men. 

Sleep mask

Try some sleep hygiene tips before investing in expensive headgear

You know all of those articles about powering down before bed, ditching screens, and establishing a routine? 

Yeah, yeah. They elicit some groans, but science sides with the boring stuff in this case. 

If you’re struggling with sleep, maybe give some of the analog methods a try first. They are free, after all. At the end of the day, don’t we all just want to sleep better?

Grace Sweeney

Grace Sweeney

Grace is a painter turned freelance writer who specializes in blogging, content strategy, and sales copy. She primarily lends her skills to SaaS, tech, and digital marketing companies.

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