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It's easy to spend every conscious moment you can staring at a smartphone, but did you know you can use it while you sleep, too?
In recent years, there's been a rise in sleep-focused apps, but they varying widely in quality and trustworthiness. It might be difficult to imagine that an app could do anything to help as you stare at the ceiling waiting for that melatonin to kick in, but maybe you're out of other options. If you've tried everything else, it's probably worth a shot.
I spent a few nights testing three of the most prominent sleep assistant apps. You'll find no promises that they'll help you because everyone has different sleep problems. There are also legitimate privacy concerns at play here, and I wouldn't blame you if you stayed away on that basis alone.
Still, for those who want their phones to figuratively tuck them in at night, here's what you expect.
Anyone who does approximately 30 seconds of research into sleep apps will happen across Calm. It's one of the more well-known examples, with an exceptional rating and a big ol' Editor's Choice badge on the iOS App Store. The first two things you need to know about Calm are that it's focused on general mental wellbeing rather than just sleep, and it'll cost you.
Calm is basically a music and audio short story app that also monitors your mood and offers things like breathing exercises and stretches. You can set up bedtime and mindfulness reminders, as well as ask the app to check in on your mood once a day. Use it long enough and its stat tracking will give you some idea of how you've been generally feeling over time.
There's a week-long free trial, but after that, it's $70 per year. You read that right: Seventy dollars. For a mobile app.
The celebs are out in full force on Calm. Image: calm
That money doesn't come without perks, obviously. Calm's audio selection features exclusive ambient noise tracks and hour-long musical selections to listen to at night. Its biggest and proudest selling point is "Sleep Stories," which are recordings of famous people reading short stories with the intent of lulling you to sleep.
For my first night with Calm, I tried a story called "Wonder," read aloud by Matthew McConaughey. It seemed like an obvious choice. After all, his buttery Texas drawl is the stuff of legend, and if he can't get me to sleep, nobody can. Unfortunately, I can't say definitively that it worked; it made for nice white noise as I dozed off, but the half-hour story didn't get me to sleep any faster than a free podcast would.
To get the most out of Calm, you'll need to take advantage of the meditation side of it, too. The sleep-deprived will find audio meditation tracks to help them get to sleep, which can be anywhere from five minutes to nearly an hour in length. Calm is rich in features and comes with slick presentation, but it's hard to shake the feeling that ambient music, sleep podcasts, and breathing exercises are all things you can find for free online.
But hey, if you're into the idea of a well-constructed wrapper for all of those things, Calm offers a free trial you should check out.
Image: sleep cycle
The world of sleep apps, as far as I can tell, focuses pretty heavily on audio. Maybe some light piano, nature sounds, or a bedtime story will release you from the clutches of your anxious thoughts long enough to get to sleep. Sleep Cycle, another highlighted selection on the App Store, takes a more unique (and possibly concerning) approach.
You see, Sleep Cycle has a distinctive sleep tracking mechanism involving your phone's microphone. You're supposed to open the app, put your phone down on a nightstand with the mic facing you, and keep it going all night. The mic supposedly picks up on your movements throughout the night while ignoring other sounds.
The idea here is not only to generate a graph to show you how you're sleeping, but to detect when you're in a state of "light sleep" so it can play a soft, soothing alarm and make sure you feel nice when you wake up. Before you start Sleep Cycle's tracking system, you give it a half-hour window when you want to get up in the morning, rather than a specific time. The "intelligent" alarm clock is supposed to only go off at an opportune moment instead of unpleasantly jolting you out of a deep sleep.
Yeah, sounds about right. Image: sleep cycle
The other nice thing about Sleep Cycle is that you can use its sleep tracking and smart alarm features without opening up your wallet. For an annual $30 fee, you can get some ambient sleep aid sounds, snore detection, and a handful of other goodies that are not really essential. You should definitely be wary of an app that needs to listen to you for several hours at a time, but I can't dismiss the appeal of Sleep Cycle.
The last app we'll look at today is cut from a similar cloth to the first. Headspace is another highly rated, popular meditation app with a bunch of sleep-specific exercises, just like Calm. Another way it resembles Calm is the pricing, as the two-week free trial up front gives way to a $70 per year subscription to get all of that sleep assistant sweetness.
Education and flexibility are two of the better aspects of Headspace. Regarding the first point, Headspace wants to teach you how to meditate up front with a short, 10-part course that ideally opens the door to the rest of its offerings. These include a 30-day sleep training course with the stated goal of gradually reevaluating your relationship to sleep.
If you don't want to bother with all of that, you can jump right into its audio selection, which is pretty similar to Calm's. There are short "wind-down" meditations to listen to as you try to sleep, as well as longer musical or white noise tracks. One thing I particularly liked about Headspace is the aforementioned flexibility; many of these meditations let you choose how long they last, so you can opt for two, five, or 10 minutes, or in some cases even longer.
Choices! Image: Headspace
You also get to occasionally choose between generic male and female voices, if one is more comforting to you than the other. It's a little less heavy on the celebrity content than Calm, though there is an NBA-branded wellness program in there right now. A couple of other fun points for sleep assistance include eight-hour radio mixes and an "I'm too tired, just play something random" button.
It's a little more colorful and cleaner than Calm, but ultimately, you're still potentially paying $70 for things you could seek out on your own. What Headspace offers is structure, and the structure it provides is accommodating and useful.
We hope one of these apps is able to help you sleep, especially during a time of pandemic-fueled stress. Whether you find solace in a short story read by one of the stars of Magic Mike or an app that listens as you toss and turn in bed, quality sleep from any source is more important now than ever. Go out and catch some Z's, folks.