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.
Calm helps me fall asleep faster some nights, but sometimes the stories keep me awake. The app also does nothing to alleviate waking through the night. The meditations are certainly calming, but they haven’t had any tangible impact on my insomnia.
“Meditation is not actually recommended for sleep,” Breus says. “Traditional meditation would bring you into a present state, not a sleepy state. Calm has a sleep coaching program, but it was not developed by a sleep specialist, so I am not comfortable recommending it.”
For digital sleep coaching, he suggests Somtryst and Sleepio, (the former is approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat chronic insomnia). He also mentions Headspace as another alternative. Breus points me to his advice here on how to choose a sleep coaching program.
A breathing bean-shaped sleep robot you hug at night may sound weird—and it is—but if it helps you doze, perhaps the astronomical price is justified. The Somnox is surprisingly large and heavy. It’s covered with fabric and is perfectly shaped for spooning. It breathes perceptibly as you hold it, with the belly area rising and falling, and you can set the breathing rate and intervals in the app. This helps to slow your own breathing, as it naturally matches the Somnox, and relaxes you. (The app also includes some gently soothing soundscapes.)
Once I got over the strangeness of spooning a big bean, I found the Somnox surprisingly effective. It helped me fall asleep at night faster than usual. Unfortunately, waking with a dead weight in bed next to you can be alarming, and it also startled me by falling out of bed and thumping onto the floor a couple of times.
It’s far too expensive and did nothing to help me stay asleep, but as our Somnox review points out, it is calming like an adult teddy bear. It’s the only device I tested that I felt an emotional connection to. Dubbed Sleepy McGee, it quickly became a family favorite too. My 9-year-old daughter was desperate to try it, and it also seemed to help her drop off more easily.
“The fundamental aspects of slowing down your breathing to help you fall asleep (which has been well known for at least 30 years) can be achieved in numerous ways,” Breus says. “While I can’t see how this would hurt you, it seems that you can do this with any number of other apps or devices and achieve the same effect for less cost.”
The first couple of brain-sensing headbands Muse released were designed to help you learn how to meditate by tracking electrical activity in your brain, allowing you to both hear and see it, so you can learn to control it. The Muse S is its first headband that focuses on helping you sleep better, plus it tracks your sleep through the night.
Muse’s clever technique translates activity in your brain into something like weather. So an active mind filled with random thoughts sounds stormy, with heavy rain, and the weather calms as your mind does. It’s an effective way to teach you how to slow your mind down. The app offers a wide range of professional guided meditations. Some help you unwind and prepare for sleep, while others take you on gentle visualizations like a summer picnic or mystical forest. There are also natural soundscapes, from soothing pianos to underwater sounds.
The guided meditations are excellent and helped me slow my thinking and feel more relaxed, but that didn’t translate into better sleep. The headband has various sensors inside, so it measures your heart rate, breathing, brain activity, and movement. I was excited at the prospect of those sleep-tracking insights, particularly since most sleep trackers struggle to differentiate between lying in bed motionless and sleeping.
Sadly, I found the Muse S uncomfortable, and although I felt very relaxed after meditations, it took me longer to fall asleep with the headband on. It also woke me in the night several times, and it frequently slipped out of position and stopped tracking my sleep.
“I love the simplicity of it,” Breus says. “I have been trying to figure out how to meditate forever, and this was the first thing to actually help me. However, there are some technical issues with the new headband, which have made it a bit frustrating.”
I recommend the Muse S for meditation, though the guided sessions require a subscription at $13 per month. Sadly, the sleep features feel retrofitted, and it did not help my insomnia at all.
Room temperature impacts your comfort in bed and can dictate how easily you fall asleep and how often you wake in the night. Since I tend to run hot and often wake with a sweaty head, I was hopeful about this active-cooling pillow pad. If you’re constantly flipping your pillow in search of the cool side, Moona is going to pique your interest, because it ensures that your pillow is always chilled.
The pad sits on top of your pillow or slips inside your pillowcase. It connects via a flexible hose to a small barrel-shaped device that sits on your bedside table. Once filled with water, this device cools it with a fan and pumps it into the pad, which keeps your head nice and cool through the night. The app allows you to set three temperatures, one for falling asleep, one for through the night, and one for waking. It also tracks your sleep, but the app is a little clunky to use, with frequent disconnections, and the sleep data is not very detailed.
I was unsure about the pad at first, as the side you lay your head on has memory foam squares that feel a little strange, but it proved to be very comfortable. The whole thing makes quite a bit of noise for the first few seconds as the water pumps, but it settles down to a low-level hum with the fan kicking on periodically. The first night I was unconvinced, and the fan noise woke me in the early morning, but after tweaking the temperatures and setting the fan to be constantly on, things improved.
The continuous low-level drone is like soothing white noise, and the cooling sensation feels very pleasant. My testing happened to coincide with a hot spell, so I was keenly aware of the benefit. I fell asleep more quickly, slept for longer, and woke fewer times. I even slept right through the night on two occasions during the week of testing, which is rare for me. Moona gave me the best week of sleep of anything I tested, according to Withing’s sleep analysis.
“While I do like cooling technology, I’m not a huge fan of this one. I do not recommend it,” Breus says. “Since we release heat from our head and feet the most, a constant cooling head seems to be the opposite of what you might need. Personally, I like the ChiliPad; it affects your entire body, which in my opinion is better.”
So many factors contribute to how well we sleep that quantifying Moona’s success is tricky. I intend to keep using it and may look into a full-body cooling system.
None of these devices is a substitute for medical attention, so go to your physician or a sleep specialist if you have persistent insomnia. It’s also vital to learn some good sleep hygiene.
Ultimately, nothing I tested came close to curing my insomnia. I have now started on the Sleepio course that Breus recommended. It encourages you to change your behavior and get better at preparing for sleep, to minimize the amount of time you spend in bed awake. That means no late-night doomscrolling, no lying in, and no caffeine or alcohol in the evening.
Asked for a final piece of advice for insomniacs, Breus says, “That’s easy. Don’t go to bed early, and never nap. These are the two biggest mistakes people make.”
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