INSOMNIA IS A waking nightmare that can rob you of your health and sense of well-being. Everyone knows we need to prioritize sleep to stay healthy and clear toxins from the brain, but getting to sleep when you’re anxious can prove impossible, and obsessing over it is counterproductive. Sadly, there is no quick fix or cure for insomnia, but the best sleep gadgets and apps can help some.
The pursuit of the sleep-deprived dollar has spawned countless devices that promise improved shut-eye. Some make dubious claims or overstate their soporific powers, and we are all different, so what works for one person may not work for the next. As a long-term insomniac, with kids who have inherited my difficulty dropping off, my household has tested a lot of sleep gadgets over the years. These are the ones that have worked for us.
Updated December 2022: We added the Moonbird, Loop Quiet, Apple Watch Series 8, Sandman Doppler, updated our impressions of the Sleepme Dock Pro, and refreshed links and prices.
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Rise and Shine
Waking up to a jarring alarm propels you out of bed with a cortisol jolt, but it is a stressful way to start the day. The best sunrise alarm clocks wake you more gently, emulating the sun by emitting light that gradually brightens your room. The Hatch Restore also offers a wind-down routine with a sunset, soothing music, and sleep sounds. For me, sticking to a routine has proved the most effective way to combat my insomnia. Our customized Hatch Restore routine gives us half an hour of reading light, followed by a 20-minute sunset with soothing music and then rain sounds through the night. We also set a sunrise alarm with tweeting birds. It helps us get to sleep and is a pleasant way to wake.
The depth of customization options is excellent, and there’s a wide choice of sounds, sleep stories, and meditations. However, only the basic library of white noise and soothing sounds is free; the rest of the content comes via a subscription costing $99 per year after a one-month trial. That’s a bit too expensive, considering you can get a year of the Calm app for $70, and it boasts better content and support for various devices. That said, if you can stomach the cost, the Hatch Restore bundles several handy features into a single bedside device.
★ Alternative: The second-generation Google Nest Hub (7/10, WIRED Recommends) can perform many of the same tricks as the Hatch, with the option to play sleep sounds, music, or podcasts, a sunrise alarm, and built-in sleep tracking. But it also serves as a great digital photo frame, smart home control panel, and display for video.
Noisy neighbors, traffic sounds, or even a snoring partner can all keep you up at night. If you need something to mask that sound and help you drop off, the Bose Sleepbuds 2 might work for you. These tiny earbuds passively block noise and play soothing sounds like a rainforest or ocean swell, white noise, or melodic instrumental music. As a side sleeper, I find earbuds uncomfortable, but when I’m away from home I always take the Sleepbuds, and they work well in any noisy environment. I prefer them to basic earbuds because I also suffer from tinnitus, and complete silence exacerbates it. I appreciate that they don’t completely block sound (they mask it), enough to help you drop off, but you will still hear a knock at the door. There’s also an alarm function and a slick charging case.
If you find earbuds uncomfortable, these are not for you. Apart from the high price, the Bose app has a limited library of sounds and music. And even though they support Bluetooth LE, you can’t stream anything else to the Sleepbuds. You must also plan ahead, as it takes a while to load content onto them.
★ Alternative: Loop Quiet ($20) tops our Best Earplugs guide for sleep. They can reduce noise by up to 27 decibels, they’re made from comfortable soft silicone, and they stay in place through the night.
Temperature impacts our ability to fall asleep and stay asleep, as well as overall sleep quality. When it’s too warm or too cold, we struggle to sleep, and a rising temperature can wake us. Your room should be somewhere between 60 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit (15 to 21 Celsius). But your body temperature will fluctuate depending on your health, bedclothes, linen, and even what you last ate (late-night nachos always seem like a good idea, but …). The Dock Pro from Sleepme combines a Chilisleep pad for your bed with a water-pumping unit that can maintain a fixed temperature (55 to 115 degrees Fahrenheit). You can customize the temperature and schedule changes through the night to encourage deep sleep and REM phases.
The Dock Pro is very effective at heating or cooling your bed to the temperature you want, and it’s lovely climbing into a warm or cool bed, depending on the time of year, but you pay a lot for the privilege. Unfortunately, the pad isn’t very comfortable, and the pumping unit makes a continuous sound. (I measured 46 decibels on my Apple Watch.) It was mostly masked by the rain sounds we listen to at night, but it could disturb some people. I’m a hot sleeper, and the Dock Pro helps me banish night sweats. It really came into its own during a heat wave last summer, enabling us to keep cool without AC. Sleepme also offers subscription sleep tracking called Sleepme+ for insights and automatic temperature adjustments, but it’s expensive ($20 per month), and we haven’t tested it.
Perhaps best known as an anti-anxiety app, Calm offers meditations for different situations. But it also boasts a wealth of sleep stories, music, and soundscapes to help you sleep. Dull, meandering tales that don’t go anywhere can be an effective way to cut off your thoughts and help you let go of worries at night. We love the train journeys narrated by Erik Braa and the rain sounds, but there’s a constantly growing library from which to choose. Stories and meditations can also be played on your phone or streamed to headphones and speakers.
While there is some free content in Calm, the good stuff requires a subscription. You can get a seven-day free trial of the Premium service, which jumps to $15 per month or $70 for the year. We recommend keeping an eye out for discount offers (they come along frequently).
Snug as a Bug
A good weighted blanket feels like a warm hug, and it can help you feel safe and relaxed, making it easier to fall asleep. The Kudd.ly (previously Koala) weighted blanket I’ve been testing has a warm fluffy side and a cool silky side. The cover zips off and is machine washable. There’s enough weight to soothe and comfort, and it stays evenly distributed. The whole family has been fighting over it since we got it. This one is only available in the UK, but you can find loads of great alternatives in our best weighted blankets guide.
On the downside, it might be too warm for hot sleepers. Our cats love it, too, but sadly that means the silky side has picked up a couple of holes from the cats kneading with their claws and refusing to budge.
★ Another alternative: The Tranquility Cooling Weighted Blanket ($40) is a similar option for folks in the US that also features a soft side and a slinky cool side.
It is well-established that breathing exercises can reduce stress, help us fall asleep, and combat insomnia. Many devices and apps extol the virtues of breathwork and guide you through various breathing exercises. Having tried a few, I am hesitant to recommend them, because you can learn breathing techniques and get all the benefits without an expensive device or app. (In fact, sometimes they get in the way of relaxation.) That said, if you find it difficult to control your breathing without guidance, Moonbird could be for you.
You hold the Moonbird in your hand with your thumb on the sensor, and it tracks your heart rate and your heart rate variability, with data recorded in graphs in the mobile app. The Moonbird supports various breathing exercises and gently expands and contracts, prompting you to match your breaths. It’s intuitive, featuring exercises to balance your breathing, curb anxiety, and get to sleep. There’s also a box-breathing exercise, and you can set your own breathing rhythms. What I like most is that you can choose your default breathing exercise and simply grab the Moonbird to trigger it (no need to open the app). It has proven effective, helping me drift off, and worked well for my 10-year-old daughter.
The fourth-generation Amazon Echo (8/10, WIRED Recommends) is an excellent smart speaker that works well as an alarm clock and can serve up sleep stories, soothing music, or soundscapes to send you off. If you subscribe to Audible, there are bedtime stories (I recommend the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius). Some people may prefer the Echo Dot with Clock as a bedside device, but the sound quality isn’t as good, and having a clock display is not recommended for insomniacs, as it tends to make you anxious about how few hours you have left to fall asleep.
Folks with privacy concerns likely won’t be happy with an internet-connected microphone in their bedroom. We have also occasionally had Alexa fail to understand what we asked for and play something completely different, which is not conducive to a restful atmosphere. One time Alexa creeped us out by piping up in the middle of the night, perhaps in response to some sleep talking. If you’re not an Alexa fan, any of the best smart speakers will tick the same boxes.
Sleep Sound for Kids
While lots of devices and apps offer relaxing meditations and sleep sounds, you may not want an internet-connected device or phone in your child’s bedroom at night. The Zenimal Kids+ is a solid screen-free alternative. It’s a small speaker with a silicone cover that looks like a turtle. It has nine different guided audio meditations that calm my eldest before bed. Plug it in, and there are three sleep soundtracks to play as they drift off.
We like that it’s portable, but you have to remember to charge it up frequently (battery life is around seven hours). The meditations are on a removable SD memory card, and you can buy different collections on cards at $20 a pop. It comes with a MicroUSB charging cable when USB-C would be better, as it’s always right side up, so much easier for kids to plug in. There’s also no wall charger, but most phone chargers will work.
★ Another alternative: The Yoto Player ($110) (7/10, WIRED Recommends) plays audiobooks triggered by slotting physical cards into the top, but it also has a sleep mode that plays an ever-changing mix of lullabies, classical music, and sleep sounds to lull them off. You can find more options in our Best Kids’ Speakers guide.
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