How your phone can actually help you sleep better

August 13, 2014

How your phone can actually help you sleep better

Tired in the morning? Always hitting snooze? Try an alarm app designed to track your sleep, analyze sleep patterns and wake you at the optimal time. 

Though many try to keep electronic devices out of the bedroom to improve sleep, there's a host of sleep apps that might have you keeping your phone under your pillow instead.  If you’re like most people, then you’re probably within arm’s reach of your phone every waking hour. But can your phone also help you get a good night’s sleep?

Dozens of apps in Apple and Google’s app stores promise to help you sleep better by giving you meditation tips or even playing soothing white noise. Perhaps most intriguing of all, there’s a whole class of apps devoted to sleep analysis — apps that you leave up on your phone’s screen while you snooze and that monitor your sleep based on your movements and the sounds in the room.

I tried four of these apps over a period of a few weeks: Sleep Cycle, SleepBot, Sleep Time and Pillow. All are alarm apps designed to help you track your sleep, as well as read sleep patterns to wake you up at the best possible time. To use them, just call them up, keep your phone plugged in and turned on so the app can register your movement, and make your way to dreamland.

Each has its own unique features, in addition to tracking capabilities.

  • Sleep Cycle ($1.99, for iOS and Android devices), is one of the most full-featured, offering a comprehensive look at your sleep patterns over time and lots of day-to-day information.
  • SleepBot (free for iOS and Android devices) gives you specific stats, such as how much “sleep debt” you have, or your average bedtime.
  • Sleep Time (free, for iOS and Android devices) has some soothing ocean and rain sounds to send you off to sleep; you can also pick a playlist from iTunes.
  • Pillow (free for iOS, $4.99 for all features) gives you great options for setting alarms for naps; premium features let you pick songs from your iTunes library to wake you up.

All try to give you a basic idea of how well you’re sleeping, whether it’s how efficiently you sleep or just by way of a quality rating.

I started off skeptical of these apps. After all, having my phone — with my work email, video apps and, um, the entire Internet — next to my head isn’t exactly my idea of the best way to unwind. And there definitely were problems. My cat, for example, frequently knocked my phone off the bed because of the dangling cord. I often forgot to turn on the apps, or to turn them back on when I remembered something that I just had to look up using my phone from bed.

I also found that the apps weren’t always accurate, particularly when compared against one another; they provided more of an overview than a clear picture of what my sleep looked like. And they are not as comprehensive as fitness trackers such as Fitbit or Jawbone; I don’t wear my phone at the gym, for example, so my step counts on these apps are not accurate.

But over time, I did learn some things about my sleep patterns that were useful. For one, no matter how early I try to go to bed, I found that it’s rare that I actually fall asleep before midnight, which means lots of hitting the snooze button in the morning. That helped me realize that it’s better for me to pack lunch the night before than trying to get up in the morning to do it.

I found out that I tend to wake up every hour or so unless I’ve had a good workout that day, in which case I sleep a lot better. And having the data around encouraged me to experiment with my sleep settings a little — particularly with Pillow, SleepBot and Sleep Cycle, which let you take notes on your sleep.

Now I know that, contrary to what I had always thought, I don’t sleep better with the windows open, but I do sleep better with the curtains drawn.

And that’s really the best way to use these apps, as part of a larger effort to fix how you sleep. They are not stand-alone solutions for addressing whatever it is that makes you wake up tired. They will only tell you that it’s happening.

If you want to put in the work to change the way you sleep, they’re worth it. For me, having all that data to parse about my sleep kept me up at night — I’m happier when I banish my phone from the bedroom altogether.

By: Hayley Tsukayama The Washington Post, Published on Fri Sep. 26, 2014  

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