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Unless you’ve been living under a rock the last 10 years, you know there’s pretty much an app for everything. Even our quietest moment — sleep — isn’t immune to technology’s impact. A wave of products have popped up to connect to our smartphones and analyze our sleep in an effort to produce better results. If you’re imagining a robot butler that tucks you in and stands attentively by your bedside to ensure restful sleep, you may be disappointed. But let’s go over a few of the ways technology can track your sleep.
What is a sleep tracker?
Sleep trackers can come in a few different forms: wearable, bedside or bed-integrated. They’re all usually tied to an app on your smartphone to track and log your different sleep sessions. The most common type of wearable would be a smartwatch or device you wear on your wrist — although there are other examples like the Philips SmartSleep headband. A bedside sleep tracker is pretty self-explanatory: It rests by the side of your bed on a nightstand. Then there are the bed-integrated devices which can either attach to your pillow or mattress to record movement as well.
Generally, the closer to your body the device is, the more accurate and effective it will be. Whatever the method, sleep trackers aim to track a handful of things:
- Sleep duration: This is monitored either by manual input or picking up on changes in movement or noise.
- Sleep quality: Again, based on your movements or environmental shifts, the actual quality of your sleep is logged.
- Sleep phases: Some devices attempt to wake you during a phase when you’re sleeping less deeply.
- Environmental factors: This includes things like the amount of light or temperature in your room.
- Lifestyle factors: Certain trackers ask you to log activities that can affect sleep (i.e., caffeine intake, diet, alcohol consumption and stress).
But how accurate is it really?
The big issue with sleep trackers is the limited amount of data they’re able to collect — most of them only track sound and movement. It’s a bit naive to think that a device has the ability to wake you during your lightest sleep phase when all it has to go off of are movement and ambient noise.
The truth is that sleep is complicated and requires a lot more than movement and sound to be properly analyzed. Sleep studies are a far more accurate way to get the full picture of your sleep health because they monitor brain wave activity, heart rhythm, eye movement, breathing and muscle tone in a controlled environment overnight. Plus, they’re using equipment that’s far more thoroughly attached to your head, chest and legs whereas sleep tracking devices only have an accelerometer to go off.
Bedside or bed-integrated devices can also incorrectly mistake your partner’s movements or sounds as your own and entirely throw off the readings. Even if you sleep alone, there’s a possibility that it will mistake restful awakeness as sleep if your heart rate is still lowered.
So are they even worth trying?
Mark Michels, business leader of Healthy Sleep Solutions for Philips, (remember the SmartSleep headband from earlier) may have said it best: “Think of it like a lavender-scented pillow. If it makes you sleep better, that’s great. It’s all based on the individual.” Conor Heneghan from Fitbit also made a good point: Sleep trackers can help people think more broadly about their sleep schedules. If someone sees they’re getting irregular or poor sleep, they can make an active decision to prioritize that area of their life. It’s also a good way to journal what you did leading up to a great night’s sleep and try to repeat those activities to ensure consistently solid rest.
As our phones become more and more capable of helping us make healthy decisions, it’s important to remember something: We’re still in control of our lives. While an app or a wearable may be able to give us advice, it’s up to us to make the changes that better our day-to-day living.