It seems like everyone is struggling to get more and better sleep these days. The National Sleep Foundation’s 2020 Sleep in America Poll found that nearly half of all Americans (44%) feel sleepy 2-4 days a week, and 28% feel sleepy 5-7 days a week. Forty percent of adults say feeling sleepy at least occasionally interferes with their daily activities. Not getting enough sleep also makes you more likely to get a host of illnesses, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke, and depression and other mental illnesses.
So can a sleep tracking device like the Fitbit, Apple Watch, Withings Sleep, or Biostrap EVO help you find out how much sleep you’re getting, pinpoint where you’re having trouble and what may be interrupting your sleep, and ultimately get a good solid night of ZZZs? The answer seems to be yes: New research in the journal Sleep suggests that these sleep tracking devices perform about as well at tracking cycles of sleeping and waking as more advanced laboratory-based sleep monitors.
Types of Trackers
What kinds of sleep trackers are available, and what do they offer?
There are two main categories of sleep tracking devices: wearables and non-wearables. Wearables can take the form of a watch or bracelet, ring, chest strap, or even a mask or headband design, while non-wearables are typically thin devices that you slide under your sheet or mattress, or place next to your bed. There are even smart mattresses that can monitor your sleep habits.
What Do They Do?
What can a sleep tracker tell you, and what does it do? It depends on the device, but the information you can get from a sleep tracker may include some or all of the following:
- Your heart rate and variations in it
- Your breathing patterns
- Time awake and time sleeping
- Body temperature
- Room temperature and humidity
- Light and noise levels
Most trackers take all this data and put it together into reports that you can view the next morning and monitor over time, to see how your sleep patterns change and what might be affecting them. Some have “sleep coach” functions that give you feedback based on the patterns they detect. Many also have tools that let you establish and work toward goals for your sleep and set smart alarms to wake you when you are in your lightest phase of sleep.
How to Pick the Best Sleep Tracker for You
With so many sleep trackers on the market, how do you choose the best one for you? Here are a few questions to ask:
- Do you want a device you can wear and check regularly, and perhaps something that integrates with your other health data, like physical activity? Then consider a wearable like a smartwatch or wristband. But if you find something like that intrusive to have on all the time (or even just when you sleep), you might look at a non-wearable.
- What’s your budget? The prices for most sleep trackers range from about $100 to $300. “Smart mattresses” that track your sleep, as well as offering a variety of “comfort” technologies aimed at improving your sleep, typically start north of $2,000 and can cost $5,000 or more.
- How much information do you want? Some sleep trackers just monitor your vital signs, like heart rate, respiration, and movement, while others also monitor the environment around you, including things like noise, temperature, and humidity.
- How can you use the information? If you want to share data with your doctor or another health professional, consider what can be done with the device’s reports. Many of the associated apps can generate printable PDFs to take to a doctor’s appointment, or online charts and graphs you can send via email.
How Not to Use a Sleep Tracker
Sleep trackers are useful and their technology is getting better all the time, but they can’t substitute for the advice of your doctor. If you’re just feeling like you aren’t getting enough sleep and want to figure out what might be interrupting your peaceful night’s rest, a sleep tracker is a great tool to help you do that.
But if you have more significant issues, such as sleep apnea or chronic insomnia, don’t rely on the sleep tracker alone. Instead, take the information you get from the device to your doctor to discuss interventions that might help you. Data from your sleep tracker can’t be used to diagnose a sleep disorder. The devices aren’t approved by the FDA for that purpose. But the information from them can help point your doctor toward next steps in diagnosing what might be keeping you from getting a good night’s sleep.