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How to Choose the Best Sleep Tracker

What makes a soccer player great? Speed helps. Footwork too. Practicing is important. Here’s another consideration: regular sleep.

“Our best players go to bed (roughly) at the same time and sleep seven, eight hours a night,” says Ravi Ramineni, a performance analyst for the Seattle Sounders of Major League Soccer.

Major League Soccer teams, Major League Baseball teams, and other employers who require high performance are increasingly using sleep trackers.

Sleep enables recovery. So the data helps teams decide who should play, and who might need a day off. Asking players for high-level performance after a night of restless sleep can set them up for failure — or injury.

Likewise, if you’re trying to set a personal best on the squat rack, or write an application for your dream job, doing it the morning after a night of restless sleep might be a bad idea.

Could a sleep tracker help you unlock your potential? If so, which one?

How Do Sleep Trackers Work?

Think of a sleep tracker as a robot observer watching you as you sleep. Using movement and sound sensors, it tries to figure out when you fall asleep, how long you’re asleep, and how deeply you sleep.

Types of sleep trackers

Is a Sleep Tracker Right for You?

Sleep trackers are optimized to detect normal sleep patterns. Multiple studies have shown that they aren’t very good at detecting insomnia episodes which makes sense. If you’re lying there, not sleeping, a motion sensor just thinks you’re asleep.

Just as your smartphone doesn’t work as well when you have a broken hand, your sleep tracker isn’t designed to track broken sleep. Anyone suffering from major sleep disturbances like insomnia, sleep apnea, or repetitive nightmares, needs the advanced technology of a sleep study. Once you get your sleep back on track again, reconsider a sleep tracker.

Sleep trackers are also less effective in busy sleep environments. Put another way — if your German shepherd likes to crawl into bed with you at 2 a.m. every morning, your sleep tracker will get mighty confused. Noisy bedrooms can interfere with sleep tracking (so can noisy partners).

What Is the Best Sleep Tracker for You?

Choosing the ideal sleep tracker will depend on two calculations that only you can make:

  1. How much money are you willing to spend on a sleep tracker?
  2. How much time are you willing to spend reviewing the sleep tracking data you get?

If money was no object, you could buy from a company like Fatigue Science, which counts the New York Giants and Dallas Mavericks among their clients. They also don’t list the price of their product.

Even if you did buy from Fatigue Science, you’d have to then interpret the data coming from the sleep tracker. Sports teams have performance experts who make that their full-time job. You probably already have one of those.

While cost is an important factor, so is convenience. Are you really going to want to know what your heart rate was at 2:18 in the morning? Or do you just want a basic measure of hours slept?

Smartphone Sleep Tracking Apps

Smartphone sleep trackers are the least reliable for in-depth data. On the other hand, if you have a smartphone, using it means you won’t need another device. And you check your smartphone every day, so it’ll be easy to find time to look at the data it provides.

Sleep Cycle

The Tech: You choose. The app can use the phone’s accelerometer to track your movement, in which case, you need to place your phone next to your pillow. Or you can have it use the microphone to “hear” your movements, in which case, it should go on a flat surface near your bed.

The Benefits: Detects your sleep patterns and wakes you up when you are sleeping lightly. Generates graphs that show your sleep patterns during the night.

sleep cycle app screenshot

The Cost: Free with optional premium subscription, for $29.99 a year. Download for iPhone or Android.

SleepScore

The Tech: The app uses the phone’s microphone and speaker to detect your motion throughout the night. You can also buy the SleepScore Max, a standalone device that offers more accurate data.

The Benefits: Gentle wake-up alarm. Assigns each night’s sleep a score based on an assessment of your sleep quality.

sleepscore app

The Cost: Free, with optional premium subscription, for $49.99 a year. Download for iPhone or Android, or buy the SleepScore Max device for $149.99, and the premium subscription is free.

Pillow

The Tech: Uses the microphone and speaker of an iPhone or iPad to record sleep. Can also record sleep with an Apple Watch.

The Benefits: Gentle wake-up alarm and basic sleep analysis. It also records audio while you sleep so you can monitor snoring and other disruptions.

pillow app on iphone and apple watch

The Cost: Free, or $4.99 for premium version. Download for iPhone.

Wearable Sleep/Fitness Trackers

The main goal of these wearable devices is to track daily movement and exercise rather than sleep. They are best at recording your overall sleep time but struggle to capture deeper data.

A 2018 study of wearables, including products from the two brands below, found that the trackers matched more closely to self-reported sleep outcomes than a sleep-research grade device. Researchers concluded that “these trackers offer a lower-cost alternative to tracking sleep in healthy populations.”

Fitbit

The Tech: Fitbit’s heart-rate monitor and motion detector work together to monitor your sleep.

The Benefits: Identifies the time you stay in every sleep stage, and makes recommendations based on your sleep goal.

fitbit app and product

The Cost: Fitbit trackers start at $69.95. Here are their sleep tracking models.

Garmin

The Tech: As of June 2018, Garmin trackers use movement, heart rate, and heart rate variability to assess sleep.

The Benefits: Data recorded during sleep appears in the Garmin Connect app.

The Cost: Garmin’s basic fitness trackers are less than $100 with prices ranging closer to $1,000 for higher-end products. Not all of their wearable products track sleep.

Wearable Sleep-Focused Trackers

These wearable devices are engineered for sleep tracking while also offering overall activity tracking.

Withings Move

The Tech: This wearable, which began shipping in April 2019, is ideal for sleep tracking because of its incredible battery life — it can go 18 months on a single charge.

The Benefits: The device automatically tracks light and deep sleep cycles if you wear it to bed. It then supplies a sleep score based on how long you slept, how deep it was, and whether you woke during the sleep. It tracks naps, too.

The Cost: Starts at $69.99.

ŌURA Ring

The Tech: The ring has separate sensors that track body temperature, pulse, and body movement. A 2017 study favorably compared the ring’s sleep tracking to the medical standard, polysomnography.

The Benefits: In addition to a sleep score, ŌURA provides a readiness score, which indicates if your body is primed for peak performance.

oura rings

The Cost: Starts at $299.99.

Non-Wearable Sleep Trackers

These devices sit under or are built into your mattress. This technology, especially the Emfit device, is used by medical researchers to study sleep.

Emfit

The Tech: The devices uses ballistocardiography — the measurement of the expansion and contraction of the circulatory system. It works similar to a heart monitor.

The Benefits: Nothing to wear. Nothing to turn on and off. Just go to bed and data — lots of it — is ready when you wake. Emfit is used by medical researchers as a low-cost alternative to more expensive sleep tracking devices.

emfit product and data

The Cost: $209.00 plus shipping, in the U.S. and Canada.

Beddit Sleep Monitor

The Tech: Also uses ballistocardiography to track heart rate and body movements. Beddit, which Apple purchased in 2017, connects via Bluetooth with iPhones to deliver real-time data.

The Benefits: If you love Apple devices, Beddit may be the right choice for you. Integrations with iPhone and Apple Watch are already here with additional ones likely to come.

beddit iphone and apple watch

The Cost: $149.95 at the Apple Store.

Withings Sleep

The Tech: Another ballistocardiography-based device that tracks heart rate and breathing. Withings Sleep can also detect breathing disturbances that may be a sign of undiagnosed sleep apnea. The app also integrates with IFTTT, so you can use it to do things like turn off the lights when you go to bed.

The Benefits: Provides a sleep score as well as data that can be analyzed in Withings’ Health Mate app, plus an exclusive in-app coaching program to improve sleep.

withings sleep score

The Cost: $99.95

You Can Track Sleep for Free — but a Tracker Might Be Worth the Investment

You can make your own sleep tracker with a piece of paper and a pen.

Just write down when you go to bed, when you wake up, and anything unusual that happened during that time.

Medical researchers call it a sleep diary, and it’s still considered one of the best forms of sleep tracking. When they test how well sleep trackers work — sleep diaries are what they use for comparison.

But that’s one more thing to do in your already busy day. A sleep tracker can do the work for you, and make sure you never miss a night of data.

And if that data says you need to get better sleep? We’ve got science-backed sleep tech to help.

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