Sleep is important. But knowing we must prioritize sleep where we don’t get enough, unfortunately, is not conducive to getting more. And insomnia is a common alarming condition. In the United States, up to 35 percent of adults have occasional symptoms of insomnia, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, while 20 percent suffered from a short-term disorder (less than three months) and 10 percent suffered from chronic insomnia.
Constant connections to work and social life may have exacerbated our insomnia, but the pandemic has shifted it into high gear. Searches for “sleep apps” have increased 104% in the past year, according to Uswitch Search. I count myself among those who fight against sleep. It usually takes me an hour or more to fall asleep, and recently I have woken up several times during the night with no clear cause. There’s a reason sleep deprivation is used to break people down: it makes everything in life more difficult.
Desperate to sleep, I tried several apps and gadgets that promise to relieve insomnia. I tested most of them for at least a week, sometimes longer, and used the Withings sleep tracking mat to compare the results. It’s a mat that goes under your mattress and tracks your sleep cycles, heart rate, and snoring throughout the night to give you a detailed breakdown of your sleep, all summed up in an overall sleep score. I also consulted Michael Breus, clinical psychologist and sleep therapist known as “the sleep doctor, ”For a second opinion on the science behind each product.
A light sleeper? If you wake up easily to noise, such as traffic passing your window or a snoring partner, you might want to give Bose Sleepbuds II a try. These tiny headphones fit your ears perfectly and block out external sounds while playing soothing soundscapes. They have rubber tips in three different sizes to ensure a good fit, and mine had no trouble staying in place overnight.
You choose the sounds of the app on your phone. There’s a good mix of natural soundscapes like ocean swells or a campfire, static sounds, and a few slightly melodic music options, but you’re limited to around 10 sounds on the headphones at a time. Each takes a good 20 minutes to download via Bluetooth LE, so you need to plan ahead. You’re also limited to Bose’s sound library, with no ability to stream your music or download sounds. They come with a smooth charging case that the heads snap into place magnetically.
I found the Sleepbuds II to be relaxing and they mask noise well. But this is passive rather than active noise cancellation, so they don’t completely block out the 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’s uncomfortable to have something in my ear all night. They kept me from falling asleep and sometimes woke me up when I changed my position. Having said that, I don’t like headphones in general so your mileage may vary.
“I have them and love them,” says Breus. “I love that they have an alarm that you can use without disturbing your bed partner. My wife sleeps with the TV on and I use them at night, and it’s very useful.
With over 100 million downloads, Calm (ios, Android) is an extremely popular application. Originally focused on meditation and mindfulness, with a range of guided meditations and breathing exercises designed to relieve stress, Calm has expanded to sleep.