Various studies estimate that about 70 percent of all adults have difficulty in sleeping at least few nights every week. Sleep disturbances are also observed in about 25 to 30 percent of infants and children.
Sleep patterns and sleep quality are determined by a diverse range of factors such as light, room temperature, food, drinks, drugs, anxiety, pain, genetics, jet lag and others. And naturally, the advice offered to get better sleep is also just as diverse.
With different people having different circadian rhythms (biological processes controlling sleep and wakefulness patterns) and multiplicity of variables affecting sleep, what works for one person may not necessarily work for another.
Since you can’t see yourself sleeping, there is no way to know your sleep quality so that you can identify the advice that does the job for you. To know what works best, you either have to try out different techniques on a trial and error basis or take the more expensive route of spending a few nights in a sleep clinic.
But now the advances in digital health technology provide us with cheaper sleep tracking tools that help us understand sleep patterns and make the necessary changes to our sleep habits at no or little cost. While these sleep tracking tools are not as detailed and precise as sleep clinics, they do the job fairly well.
Most of the sleep tracking technology falls into two categories – sleep tracking smartphone apps and more specialised sleep tracking devices.
Almost all sleep tracking smartphone applications (such as Sleep Cycle Alarm Clock for iOS and SleepBot Sleep Cycle Alarm for Android) work the same way. You need to set your alarm and place the smartphone under your pillow. The apps record the slightest movement you make while you are asleep and use that information to identify the phase of sleep (such as light sleep, deep sleep, REM sleep and awake phase). Then they wake you up by fading in an alarm when you are in light sleep which is the best phase to wake from sleep.
The apps then project your sleep patterns in graphs which you can study to find out when you actually go into sleep instead of just tossing and turning on the bed. As explained earlier, these apps don’t offer as much analysis as sleep clinics but they do the job, especially considering that they are free.
The sleep tracking devices usually come with a wearable wristband (such as Fitbit Force) or a headband (such as Melon). The user has to set the alarm on the smartphone and wear the wristband or headband when going to sleep. The information gathered by sensors in the band is synced wirelessly with the smartphone or tablet which then analyses the data and identifies the best phase of sleep to wake you up.
The analysis presented by these devices is usually more detailed than sleep tracking apps but they cost money (usually upwards $100). The wristband-type devices which use a technique called wrist-actigraphy to track movements during sleep are more popular than the headband-type devices due to ease of use and comfort.
It is important to understand that these apps and devices do not make you sleep better. They can only tell you how you slept and that information can help you make the necessary changes in your sleep habits to get better sleep. By following a specific technique/suggestion for a few days you can find out how good your sleep was during that period. If it works for you, fine. If it doesn’t, you move on to try another one until you discover the optimum conditions that best suit you.