Sleep is important. But knowing we need to prioritize sleep or that we aren’t getting enough, sadly, is not conducive to getting more. And insomnia is an alarmingly common condition. As many as 35 percent of adults in the US have occasional symptoms of insomnia, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, while 20 percent have suffered a short-term disorder (less than three months), and 10 percent have chronic insomnia.
Constant connections to work and social lives may have exacerbated our sleeplessness, but the pandemic has kicked it into high gear. Searches for “sleep apps” rose by 104 percent over the past year, according to Uswitch research. I count myself among those who struggle with sleep. It usually takes me an hour or more to drift off, and recently I’ve been waking multiple times in the night with no clear cause. There’s a reason sleep deprivation is used to break people down—it makes everything in life harder.
Desperate for sleep, I tried out several apps and gadgets that promise to alleviate insomnia. I tested most of these out for at least a week, sometimes more, and I used the Withings Sleep Tracking Mat to compare results. It’s a mat that goes under your mattress and tracks your sleep cycles, heart rate, and snoring through the night to give you a detailed breakdown of how well you slept, all summed up with an overall sleep score. I also consulted Michael Breus, a clinical psychologist and sleep therapist known as “the Sleep Doctor,” to get a second opinion on the science behind each product.
Light sleeper? If you wake up easily due to noise, like traffic passing your window or a snoring partner, you may want to try the Bose Sleepbuds II. These tiny earbuds fit snugly in your ears and block external sound while playing soothing soundscapes. They have rubbery ear tips in three different sizes to ensure a proper fit, and mine had no trouble staying in through the night.
You pick sounds from the app on your phone. There’s a good mix of natural soundscapes like ocean swell or campfire, sounds like static, and some gently melodic musical options, but you are limited to around 10 sounds on the earbuds at once. Each one takes a good 20 minutes to upload via Bluetooth LE, so you have to plan ahead. You’re also limited to Bose’s library of sounds, with no option to stream your music or upload sounds. They come with a slick charging case that the buds snap into magnetically.
I found the Sleepbuds II relaxing, and they do a good job of masking noise. But this is passive rather than active noise cancellation, so they don’t completely block out sound. I wouldn’t hesitate to use them if there was a lot of noise outside, or if I was on a long-haul flight, but I’m a side sleeper, and it feels uncomfortable to have something in my ear all night. They made it harder for me to fall asleep and woke me on occasion when I shifted positions. That said, I dislike earbuds generally, so your mileage may vary.
“I have these, and I love them,” Breus says. “I like the fact that they have an alarm that you can use without disrupting your bed partner. My wife sleeps with the TV on, and I use these at night, and it is very helpful.”
With more than 100 million downloads, Calm (iOS, Android) is a hugely popular app. Originally focused on meditation and mindfulness, with an array of guided meditations and breathing exercises designed to alleviate stress, Calm has branched out into sleep.
The company has developed a large selection of sleep stories, meditations, music, and soundscapes to help you sleep. My wife and I got into the habit of listening to sleep stories. These dull, gently told, rambling tales demand just enough focus to keep your mind from wandering back to nagging worries. Some are narrated by celebrities (Eva Green and Matthew McConaughey are excellent), but the train journeys told by Erik Braa strike the perfect balance to carry you off to Snoozeville. I also like some of the soundscapes, particularly Ocean Surf and Rain on a Window.