There’s now more technology than ever claiming to help you sleep better, from wake-up lights that mimic the sunrise to mattresses that use science to turn body heat into restorative infrared heat, and even so-called meditation headsets that claim to calm you down enough to fall asleep. But if you’re having a hard time falling or staying asleep, just buying up all of these bedroom gadgets isn’t necessarily going to help (and if your problems are chronic, you should really seek assistance from a medial professional, not an app or tech product).
If you’re having a hard time falling asleep during the pandemic, you’re not alone. A study done by the department of psychology at Sapienza University of Rome found that “a significant proportion of respondents reported that their sleep quality had been affected as a result of the pandemic, with 57 percent of respondents in the Italian survey reporting poor sleep quality, as well as high levels of anxiety and distress.” According to the British Sleep Society, close to three-quarters of people in the United Kingdom noticed a change in their sleep patterns, too.
Rebecca Robbins, an instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School and associate scientist at Brigham & Women’s Hospital, says that approximately 30 percent of adults in the U.S. already “track their sleep using their smartphone or some sort of wearable technology.” And that trend seems to be growing as more technology becomes available, she says, giving the average person detailed sleep data to work with. The trick is using that data and the available technology in a way that actually helps you improve your sleep. Dr. Matthew Ebben, sleep medicine expert at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian, compares it to working out: “Just buying a bunch of weights doesn’t put you in good shape, doesn’t build muscle for you. You have to know the proper exercises. You have to do them on a regular basis, and technology for sleep is like that.”
We talked to sleep experts to figure out which of the most common types of sleep gadgets can actually help you improve the quality of your sleep and how to use them correctly (along with some low-tech alternatives).
If you feel like you haven’t been getting enough sleep, but otherwise feel okay, it might be helpful to start using a sleep tracker. “A lot of times, these things can be very helpful to make people understand that their problem isn’t that you don’t sleep. It’s you don’t perceive your sleep, or it’s not satisfying,” says Dr. W. Chris Winter, sleep-medicine specialist and neurologist. It’s ostensibly a relatively low-impact way to gain some insight into the number of hours that you sleep, especially when it’s an item like the FitBit, which has a battery life of up to seven days.
With Apple’s sleep-tracking app you can see how long and how deeply you’re sleeping, then create a sleep goal and a custom sleep schedule to try to improve your sleep. Tracking your sleep in this way, Robbins says, is “generally a good thing. When we all draw a little bit more attention to our behaviors, it prompts things like self-reflection.” You might realize that you’ve had too much coffee that day or you stared at your phone screen for too long before going to sleep. The tracker’s job is to “provide behavioral feedback,” says Robbins. “You slept well last night. And now we have the XYZ parameter to show that it was, pretty good sleep.”
Or, if you prefer a sleep tracker that you don’t have to wear, you can try this sleep-tracking pad from Withings (a company owned by Nokia that’s recently undergone some rebranding, hence the somewhat confusing product title). Setup is simple: Just slip this pad underneath your mattress and connect it to the accompanying app. Plus, since you leave it plugged into the wall, you never have to worry about charging it.
Ebben takes a different approach — especially since “we don’t know the accuracy of most of these devices,” as he points out — and recommends keeping a sleep journal or log in a regular, low-tech notebook, especially if you recognize you have a problem. “You keep track of when you thought you got into bed and when you thought you fell asleep and your awakenings during the night, which can be quite helpful when you bring it into a sleep doctor,” he explains. (This is also a good option for those nervous about uploading your biometric data to an unknown server.)
Biofeedback is “a way of converting physiological signals into something you can train,” explains Ebben, and there is some evidence that this kind of mindfulness training can help you sleep better. White describes it simply: “There are some really cool devices you can put around your head that literally measure your brain activity. These devices can literally train your mind to settle down.” Biofeedback devices, like this Muse headband, give audible feedback as your brain’s activity changes; in this case, it’s the literal sound of ocean waves crashing on a beach. “So if you can make the ocean quiet, you are actually settling your mind,” says Winter, who often recommends these devices to professional athletes he works with who get stressed out before big games. “The question is whether these devices are focused on the right frequency of brainwaves,” warns Ebben, and he adds that not everyone can actually learn from this technique — but it can be extremely effective for those who take to it, so it’s worth a shot if you’re trying to find a structured way to calm down at night.
Though it’s easy to get overwhelmed by futuristic sleep technology, for a lot of people, getting to sleep more easily is as simple as scheduling night mode on your phone, putting on blue-light-blocking glasses an hour or two before bed, or installing blue-light-free light bulbs for evening use. But exposing yourself to full-spectrum, bright light — occasionally called a SAD lamp — can be especially helpful when you’re trying to reset your circadian rhythm, either because you’re waking up too early or going to bed too late. Ebben says that folks who are delayed, meaning they’re going to bed later and later every night, might benefit from sitting in front of one of these super-bright lights first thing in the morning, to basically halt the production of melatonin, the hormone that makes you sleepy. If you repeat this regularly, “then your circadian rhythms will actually shift, and it’ll be easier to fall asleep and easier to wake up.”
A sunrise alarm clock gradually becomes brighter to slowly rouse you from sleep. In our story about gentle wake alarm clocks, Terry Cralle, a clinical sleep educator says, “Research indicates that a more naturalistic exposure to light can improve sleep quality.” The sunrise simulation from Phillips provides a gentle sunrise or sunset to help you slowly wake up or fall asleep. “The gradual nature of the increasing level of light mimics a natural sunrise, essentially waking us up before our eyes open,” Cralle says. “The body does respond to light even with eyes closed, shutting off melatonin to signal the end of the night,” Kennedy says.
If you’re not a fan of sleep trackers or biofeedback devices, W. Christopher Winter, author of The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep Is Broken and How to Fix It, recommends a simple alarm clock from a new brand called OneClock. Winter says this clock “gently guides you out of sleep with specifically composed compositions” of tones and tempo shifts to wake you. The OneClock is currently available for pre-order.
“This is the most intelligent sleep-tracking platform I’ve seen in a bed,” says Winter. “It reminds me when to go to bed, spots trends, and sends a wealth of sleep information (room temp, air quality, air purity, humidity, etc.) to my phone.” TempurPedic uses Sleeptracker AI, which Winter describes as robot sleep coaching at its best. “I’ve seen my future replacement as a sleep expert. It’s probably some future version of this bed,” he says.
The Strategist is designed to surface the most useful, expert recommendations for things to buy across the vast e-commerce landscape. Some of our latest conquests include the best acne treatments, rolling luggage, pillows for side sleepers, natural anxiety remedies, and bath towels. We update links when possible, but note that deals can expire and all prices are subject to change.
Every editorial product is independently selected. If you buy something through our links, New York may earn an affiliate commission.