We tried 9 sleep apps so you donnn't ... (zzz) | CBC Life (2023)

We tried 9 sleep apps so you donnn't ... (zzz) | CBC Life (1)

Important note: Sleep problems and anxiety issues should not be overlooked as they can be serious disorders.

I'm a light sleeper. A light sleeper with a small bladder and a mind that often just won't quiet. So over the past couple of years, I've put a substantial amount of money and effort into my bedroom set-up, hoping to create the ultimate sleep environment. I've purchased a giant bed, a decent set of ear plugs as well as ultra-soft sheets, and I was gifted the sort of fancy alarm clock that sends you off to sleep with ocean sounds and wakes you with zen chimes. However, sleep apps were something I hadn't yet explored.

So I jumped at the opportunity to put some smartphone slumber aids to the test. I tried out apps in three categories: those offering sounds to help you sleep, those that use activities to soothe and clear the mind and a third group of sleep trackers that provide data in order to potentially identify and address issues. I stayed away from any described as prescription-only and/or designed for individuals with chronic insomnia.

I used each for three nights, only paying or opting into a free trial when I felt I needed to. Some apps had enough great free features that I didn't need to fork over any personal information or payment, while others locked the good stuff behind paywalls

In terms of testing conditions, you should know that I live on a busy street in downtown Toronto that's never not noisy.

Aside from that, it's worth noting that because everyone has their own bedtime preferences and circumstances, they may also have totally different experiences with, say, sleepy stories, pink noise and smartphone fingerpainting than I did.

With that said, if counting sheep isn't cutting it, hopefully these notes will inspire you to discover your new go-to tool for nodding off.

The sleep whisperers

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Tune out the world around you with these tools, which draw on ASMR and other soothing sounds, meditations and good old bedtime stories to encourage slumber.

BetterSleep

The sleep sales pitch: This app by a Montreal-based developer promises improved slumber thanks to an extensive library of sleep sounds, stories and guided meditations; plus there are calming exercises and a sleep tracker you can use, too.

The experience: I answered a series of questions about my sleep issues and my typical daytime alertness, and was assigned a chronotype: I'm, um, a Chipmunk. Based on that, I was given ideal bedtimes and wake-up times. Within the app, I set my alarm and scheduled my bedtime.

On Night 1, I chose a story to listen to from the free selections. But, bad luck, I actually found the tale a bit disturbing, and I slept terribly.

On Night 2, I tried out the ASMR offerings, with 50-plus different sounds, ranging from classics like "ocean" to the decidedly niche "dried herbs." I created a custom sound concoction ("rain on window," the surprisingly satisfying "ear cleaning" and a hint of "fizzy drink"), and I dozed off after about 20 minutes and slept decently.

On Night 3, I tried the isochronic tones — sounds with frequencies meant to influence the brain in various ways, according to the app. I picked "Low alpha 8 Hz Pre-Sleep" and drowned out the pulses by layering in "Tokyo Bedroom on a Rainy Night." I felt sleepy soon, and switched off the music and activated the app's sleep tracker. I slept soundly through the night and woke to review my stats — the analysis of a recording to see what disrupted my sleep. I wasn't sure what to do with the information other than to be glad I was able to sleep through my partner's snoring!

Dreamy features: This app has a lot going for it and you can sample many of the offerings without signing up for a free trial subscription. The sound mixing feature is particularly impressive.

Potential nightmares: If you're someone who's looking specifically for sleep stories or sleep tracking, there are likely better options out there for you.

After sleeping on it: BetterSleep is the Swiss Army knife of sleep apps, offering a little something for everyone. So, for the uninitiated, this might be a good starter subscription.

Compatibility: iOS and Android devices, Apple Watch

Price: Limited access for free. Seven-day free trial, then $59.99/year

Calm

The sleep sales pitch: Calm is the app many may be familiar with; it's the one that lets you go to bed with celebrities — by way of dreamy stories told by Hollywood heartthrobs.

The experience: I decided to take full advantage of my virtual celebrity hall pass, inviting a different dream date into my bedroom each night. There wasn't much available for free and I wanted to be backstage with the A-listers, so I decided to unlock the free trial of the premium version of the app.

I chose the first story to pop up, narrated by Matthew McConaughey. It opened with a "Well, hello there" in his signature southern purr, but, ultimately, it was a miss. I tossed and turned through the night and woke exhausted. I rated my sleep "horrible" within the app and denoted it with a wincing scream emoji.

On Night 2, I chose "Dream with Me" narrated by Harry Styles, which I found to be more of an erotic mind massage than a traditional bedtime story. At one point, Harry whispered: "Now, we snuggle on a raft and drift for endless hours as willow trees sway in the breeze and blossoms fall in showers." On my own scale of one to Harry Styles, I'd rate my sleep that night nearly a full Harry.

Night 3, I departed for Sleepytown on a train with Irish actor Cillian Murphy (there's a large library of train-based tales featured on Calm). During the very detailed story, "Crossing Ireland by Train," I was encouraged to leave the stress of the day behind, but I truly felt compelled to grab my computer halfway through and Google a map of Ireland. The result was another restless night. Checking in with the app in the morning I rated my sleep "not great."

Dreamy features: For sleep stories, Calm reigns supreme. In addition to the celeb content, there are libraries of fiction and non-fiction tales about nature, travel and more. There are ASMR story options; a variety of music, including mellow remixes of songs from popular artists like Post Malone; as well as soundscapes and meditation content.

Potential nightmares: Access to A-listers never comes cheap and this app is no exception. At over $100 with tax, this is the priciest sleep app that I tested.

After sleeping on it: Call me old-fashioned, but I actually like the act of reading before bed, so rambling meditative bedtime stories without a substantial plot, no matter who is reading them, don't really do it for me. However, if you're a fan, you can't beat the high-quality content on Calm. I suggest trying the free subscription one way or the other before you fork over the annual fee.

Compatibility: iOS and Android devices, Apple Watch, Android Wear, Samsung TV, Apple TV, Google Home, Sonos

Price: Limited access for free. Seven-day free trial, then $89.99/year

Noisli

The sleep sales pitch: Noisli calls itself "the background noise and [colour] generator for working and relaxing." The app's website says that silence and loud noises are often associated with danger, which is why both can make us uneasy and unable to relax, while constant, predictable sounds can be calming. Although Noisli was originally designed to encourage focus and productivity, it also seems like it might be helpful for people like me who wake at the slightest creak or sniffle.

The experience: After paying just under three dollars, the app was all mine — without even renewal fees to expect in the future, a bonus from the get-go. It's simple on opening, just a series of aesthetically pleasing icons representing typical noise machine sounds. There's also a timer, and that's about it. Very Scandi.

I tried the app for the first time on garbage night — a worthy challenge since my trash is collected after midnight (the joys of city life!). I opted for my go-to drown-out-the-world sound, rain, and mixed it with two types of wind and a train (this one going nowhere in particular, thank goodness) bumping over tracks.Any outside disruptions were significantly dulled, to the point that I dozed off quickly.

Night 2, a Friday, my neighbour's teenage daughter seemed to be having a sleepover, judging by the squealing audible through our shared walls. That plus the usual weekend traffic and street screaming? Good luck, Noisli. I decided to go with some aggressive pink noise and I added some crackling fire to take the edge off. I didn't remember falling asleep, but it seemed instantaneous after activating the pink noise and I woke feeling well-rested.

Night 3 seemed quieter, so I tried out a fan option cranked at full blast (still not very loud). I set the sound to play for an hour, but I was asleep within minutes.

Dreamy features: There is an admirable simplicity to Noisli. Open the app, click an icon, adjust the volume and mix if necessary, then let it play or set a timer for a predetermined runtime.

Potential nightmares: Noisli's strength could also be considered its downfall for those who crave variety when it comes to sleep sounds. The Noisli website boasts 28 sounds for "Pro" and "Business" accounts (which come with monthly fees of $10 and $24-plus, respectively), but I only see 16 on my app.

After sleeping on it: This noise machine app doesn't come with a lot of bells and whistles, but that could be ideal for those who favour simplicity and ease of use and just want to drown out the world around them. Plus, it costs less than a latte.

Compatibility: iOS and Android devices, Apple Watch, Chrome extension

Price: $2.79

The mind chatter mitigators

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Who doesn't wish they could just switch their brain off at bedtime instead of stressing over the day or week ahead? These apps attempt to calm a racing mind with breathing, introspection and simple creative exercises.

Breathwrk

The sleep sales pitch: "Fall asleep in minutes with breathing," Breathwrk says, inviting me to "be a part of the largest community of breathers in the world!" (They even cater to some 3.3 million TikTok fans with custom breath visualizations, though the overlap between those fans and actual app users is unclear.)

The experience: Without creating a paid account, all I could access were two one-minute sleep and dream "exercises" and one seven-minute "Sleep Deeper" class, which I tried on Night 1. I followed yoga-class-like instructions to breathe deep and audibly, with talk of inner stillness. What followed was a very deep and dream-filled sleep. In the morning, push notifications enabled, the app prompted me to do some quick energizing breathing to wake up, this time guided by sounds, graphics, haptic and text cues. They made me feel slightly dizzy at first, and were no substitute for my morning coffee, but I did feel good about my leaderboard position and my improved breathing stats.

I opted into the seven-day trial subscription on Night 2, which unlocked all of the content. I performed a "no worries" exercise: some slow nasal inhales and exhales combined with four-second holds. I followed this up with one minute of "stress relief" breathing, a "muscle relaxer" exercise and a seven-minute "Fall Asleep Fast" class. Unfortunately, after all that, I tossed and turned all night.

Night 3, I tried a six-minute "Sleep Easy" class, which was nothing special, and to achieve the next rank, whatever that was, I stayed up to do a two-minute sleep exercise. Still awake, I went back to the "Sleep Deeper" class I tried on Night 1 and passed out.

Dreamy features: Breathwrk seems approachable with its short exercises that make it easy to dabble in nighttime meditation and even sneak in some calming breathwork during the day. The app's leaderboard is also a nice motivational feature.

Potential nightmares: Gamification and meditative breathing may seem like odd bedfellows to some.

After sleeping on it: Breathwrk provides a great introduction for those new to meditation. Push notifications, progress awards and quick, easy-to-follow exercises are all handy features to encourage regular practice.

Compatibility: iOS and Android devices

Price: Limited access for free. Pro version: Seven-day free trial, then $51.99/year

Reflectly

The sleep sales pitch: Reflectly calls itself the "Number 1 journaling app that's like your best friend," encouraging users to vent frustrations and embrace introspection. It isn't marketed as a sleep app per se, but I decided to include it given the research connecting bedtime list-making and journaling to better sleep.

The experience: I opted to try the free version, setting up an account using my email and sticking to the basic journaling option.

On Night 1, I was prompted to make a journal entry, and was also shown a dashboard with a daily challenge. But at 11 p.m., it was a little late to "make something for a friend," so I passed on that and opted to complete a sentence as part of Daily Reflection. With my homework done, I hit the hay and ended up sleeping really well afterward.

The following night, I was prompted to make a list of places I truly love for my Daily Reflection — I could also add photos if I wanted. I was also asked if I'd like to participate in the Daily Challenge, which was to create a mood board. Again, I passed on that, opting instead to make a list of everything I was going to do the next day. Then, I was prompted to make a list of my favourite things. The list-making was oddly relaxing, but I didn't have the greatest sleep.

On the third night, I started my bedtime routine by accepting the app's Daily Challenge: to look back at photos of cherished memories, scrolling back through some of my favourite travel photos on my phone. Then I made my list for the following day, slept incredibly well and woke up early to start on it.

Dreamy features: For those craving a daily dose of pleasing, well, reflection to calm the mind, Reflectly's free basic plan is a good option, with its decent thought-starters.

Potential nightmares: Some of Reflectly's prompts are labour-intensive and time-consuming. I was only able to complete one of three suggested challenges.

After sleeping on it: Personally, I'd compare Reflectly to a warm bubble bath: it can be a touch time-consuming and I don't think I need it every day, but I can imagine turning to it to settle down before bed at times, even if that's not its primary purpose.

Compatibility: iOS and Android devices

Price: Limited access for free. Premium version: Seven-day free trial, then $79.99/year

Loóna

The sleep sales pitch: Loóna describes itself as a mood-altering app that combines activity-based relaxation with immersive storytelling and sounds. The goal is to reset the mind in preparation for sleep.

The experience:

My first night sleepscape choice was "Dragon's Shrine" — an all white 3D model of a pagoda-covered platform with a reptile coiled atop, which was also my canvas. Spa-type music played and the diorama floated gently, letting me spin it and zoom in on the beautiful details as a narrator told me to tap on lights that illuminated as I did. I coloured the scene, tapping my thumb on roof tiles and scales for 26 "mindful minutes," after which the app recommended an immersive story based on the sleepscape I had just completed. Unfortunately, it gave me nightmares.

On Night 2, I couldn't find any new sleepscapes to try without a membership, so I signed up for the free seven-day trial, and searched for projects especially designed to make me sleepy. I chose one with associated breathing exercises and a dreamy narration. This time, no nightmares.

On Night 3, I chose a tableau of a living room scene in a kitschy Brooklyn apartment, and the narrator explained where I got all the items in the home as I coloured. I found the vibe comforting and relatable, and I slept well afterward.

Dreamy features: Loóna's art therapy approach makes it unique among the other sleep apps I tried, and it was a take on the sleep story concept that was appealing to me. The 3D graphics are also stunning — each sleepscape is a soothing world unto itself.

Potential nightmares: This app is aggressive with its sales pitches — by way of notifications and pop-ups with special offers — which seems at odds with its calming, elevated aesthetic.

After sleeping on it: Consider this part calming colouring book, part scavenger hunt and part interactive bedtime story.

Compatibility: iOS, macOS and Android devices

Price: Limited access for free. Plus version: Seven-day free trial, then $39.99/year

The sleep trackers

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For the data-driven set, these apps generally leverage your smartphone's microphone to note "sleep events," including disruptive behaviours, sounds or movements — learnings to help identify potential sleep issues so users can adjust factors accordingly. Of course, more time will mean more data. While my three-day test period was too short for trends to emerge, I based my notes on my experience using the app and its features and how actionable the data seemed.

Sleep Cycle

The sleep sales pitch: This app promises to analyze my sleep patterns and help me better understand them. It also boasts a smart alarm clock that will wake me in my lightest sleep phase for a gentler start to the day. The app also offers meditation, bedtime stories (one is even narrated by Alexander Skarsgard), music, ASMR and sleep coaching segments, though almost none of this content is available via the free version.

The experience: Just like setting up Siri, getting started with the app requires giving the app a feel for how I talk, as well as how I snore, cough and breath. Using the free version, I set my desired alarm and I received instruction on where my smartphone should sit on my nightstand for optimal monitoring.

On Night 1, I tossed and turned. The app tracked coughing, some talking and snoring through the night. In order to listen to the recordings, I needed to unlock the premium version. Same goes for the "notes" section, but I didn't really feel like I needed either.

On Night 2, I set a sleep goal in the app: eight hours of shut-eye. The app woke me accordingly, with some soft harp music, and reported it had detected coughing, sleep talking and a whole lot of snoring through the night, again, and that I only technically clocked six hours and 39 minutes of shut-eye.

Night 3, I was still futzing about when my phone gave me an alert (in the form of a lullaby) that my target bedtime had arrived. I ended up going to sleep about an hour after that. The app recorded six hours and 35 minutes of sleep.

Dreamy features: What I really liked about Sleep Cycle were the bedtime alerts and the smart alarm that woke me up at an optimal time — usually 20-30 minutes earlier than I'd typically get up. I also liked the alarm tones, which were quite soothing.

Potential nightmares: While the app notes that it requires five nights of sleep data to reveal more robust statistics, based on the information collected in my short experience, I'm not confident I'd be impressed with the takeaways.

After sleeping on it: The smart alarm clock is reason enough to download Sleep Cycle, but I didn't receive much actionable information from three days of sleep tracking.

Compatibility: iOS and Android devices, Apple Watch

Price: Limited access for free. Premium version: $36.99-$52.99/year

Pillow

The sleep sales pitch: This self-proclaimed "smart sleep assistant" is designed to record and analyze sleep patterns. Most of Pillow's mediations, stories and sleep sounds were locked out in the free version.

The experience: Pillow has a "smart wakeup" feature, waking you up at the lightest sleep stage, and after my first sleep, the app woke me about 20 minutes before my usual wake time. It asked me to record my waking mood, and I checked my dashboard where the app reported recording 169 sounds and a sleep quality of 68 per cent, plus it stated that my 6 hours and 33 minutes of sleep was too little.

On Night 2 I got a notification that my bedtime was approaching and that I should consider going to bed. An hour later, I took its advice, this time with my smartwatch on to test how it enhanced the experience (there were many prompts that reference wearing an Apple Watch for optimum tracking). The next morning, the app reported that I slept for 6 hours and 56 minutes, with many instances of REM sleep, unlike the night before. My sleep quality was 89 per cent, which did reflect how I felt. It recorded ambient noise, including snoring, "footsteps" (creepy … do I have a ghost?), "animals" and even flatulence.

Night 3, I was really curious about whether I could unlock additional data about my terrible sleep patterns (and my ghost) by signing up for Pillow's free seven-day trial, so I did. Instantly my data from the previous two nights became more robust and I could see which stages of my sleep were within "normal" ranges or not. I could listen to the recorded noises, and I think "footsteps" may have been the rustling of sheets, while "animals" might have been snoring. I decided not to wear my Apple Watch to bed on Night 3, which may be a key factor in the experience, and I woke to a report of 68 per cent sleep quality with an overly high incidence of deep sleep and no REM sleep again.

Dreamy features: I liked that Pillow went beyond recording embarrassing sleep sounds and actually tallied up REM, deep and light sleep, showing me how my sleep measured up against recommended ranges. The ability to link Pillow sleep data to my Apple Health data allowed me to plot sleep patterns on a graph alongside my pre-existing data, such as heart rate, steps and blood alcohol content. This pairing gave me insights on how I could change my daytime habits to improve my sleep.

Potential nightmares: Pillow isn't available for use on Android devices and didn't seem to track my sleep as accurately without an Apple Watch. Also, the promised daily sleep report never arrived.

After sleeping on it: This seems like a decent sleep tracker for those who want insight into the habits and ambient noises that might be keeping them awake at night. Both a smartwatch and a premium subscription are needed to make the most of this download.

Compatibility: iOS, Apple Watch

Price: Limited access for free. Premium version: $39.99/year

SleepScore

The sleep sales pitch: SleepScore promises a highly accurate "sonar sleep tracker" and analysis to improve sleep. The app likens its technology to a bat, using sonar instead of sounds for tracking purposes.

The experience: Quite a bit was available in the free version, but an account seemed to be a requirement, so I provided my email address, age and gender — the app said it would use the latter two to create my SleepScore. I was asked a barrage of questions about my sleep hygiene, environment and goals, and my lifestyle habits, including my caffeine and alcohol consumption.

On Night 1, I played 10 minutes of what the app described as "science-backed sounds" designed to slow my breathing — variations, I'd describe, as robotic breathing through a harmonica, which were strangely calming. Then I set my smart alarm, logged my day's info (my level of sleepiness, caffeine consumption, alcohol consumption, stress) and turned on the sonar tracker. On waking, my SleepScore was reported as 88, apparently better than the typical 78, and the app broke down my sleep by stage (light, deep and REM), which was used to calculate my "MindScore" and "BodyScore."

On Night 2, I followed the same prompts, logging some wine consumption this time. I scored worse stats, reflective of my feeling on waking.

On Night 3, I logged my day again: a little less exercise, a little more alcohol, but my stats were slightly improved over the night before.

Dreamy features: After three days with this app, I felt I had a pretty good idea of what I should work on to improve my sleep and mood on waking. With that in mind, I was able to toggle to the articles within the app — curated to my needs — for tips on how to get more deep sleep.

Potential nightmares: For me, the only cause for pause was the extensive amount of information I had to share to get the full extent of the app's offerings.

After sleeping on it: I liked that SleepScore was less about noise-shaming and more about constructive analysis and feedback. Also, there was nothing hidden behind the paywall that I felt I needed. The app only tracks the person closest to the phone.

Compatibility: iOS and Android devices

Price: Basic access for free. Premium version: Seven-day free trial, then $59.99-$64.99/year

Jen O'Brienis an award-winning editor and freelance writer based in Toronto. Follow her@thejenobrien.

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