Wearable Devices and Apps to Track Sleep

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: June 2020

A host of gadgets, apps, and devices designed to measure sleep are now available to consumers. Some of these devices are used for medical research when a full sleep study (polysomnography) is not possible. Others are made just for consumers to track their sleep.

The consumer devices cannot replace formal sleep lab tests for accuracy, but they can give you and your doctor a general idea of whether you have a sleep issue.1-4

How wearable devices measure sleep

Most wearable devices use an accelerometer, or actigraphy, to sense motion. The device assumes that when you move you are awake and when you are still you are asleep.

Many devices also tell time, and measure steps, heart rate, and physical activity. Some are waterproof. Some measure room light and temperature or blood oxygen levels. Most are worn on the wrist, but some can be worn on the head, ankle, or thigh.

Each device comes with software to be downloaded onto a phone or desktop so that results can be tracked.

Brands of wearable sleep devices

Dozens of companies sell wearable devices that measure sleep. A few of the devices that have been studied for accuracy include:2-3

  • activPAL
  • Actigraph GT3X+
  • Actiwatch
  • Basis Health Tracker
  • Fitbit
  • GENEactiv
  • Jawbone Up
  • Misfit
  • Withings Pulse O2

There are many other brands, including smartwatches. Costs begin around $30, but the more accurate devices may cost thousands of dollars.

Advantages of gadgets, apps, and wearable devices

Wearables can increase a person’s awareness of how well they are sleeping. This knowledge may encourage them to seek help if they are tired or sleepy during the day, or are snoring. While the devices may not measure light sleep versus deep sleep very well, it can provide useful, general data for the doctor. Technology for the devices is improving quickly.1,3

Dozens of apps help you learn to meditate, reduce anxiety, or relax. Since many people have trouble winding down physically and mentally before bed, these apps can be invaluable. You can choose an app that plays soothing music, nature sounds, white noise, and even bedtime stories. Some of these apps let you customize a soundtrack from a library of restful sounds.5

Snoring apps can record, analyze, and track your (or a bed partner’s) snoring. While not scientific enough to diagnose sleep apnea, these apps can give you useful information to take to your doctor.6

Problems with gadgets, apps, and wearable devices

Sleep gadgets, apps, and wearables are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. This means that these devices do not have to meet set standards or be tested to verify any claims made about their accuracy. Most companies do not share exactly how their devices and software work so it can be hard to know how well they work.

Most of these devices are labeled as “entertainment” devices. However, a few companies have begun to share how reliable their device is compared to an in-lab sleep study. This technology is changing quickly.

A few studies have compared different wearables. The studies found some wearables gave a generally accurate picture of total sleep time but missed recording nap times. But, many devices overestimate sleep efficiency or the amount of time you are asleep while in bed.

None of the devices can replace a full sleep study in a lab. That is because wrist actigraphy is not reliable for measuring stages of sleep, sleep efficiency, or light versus deep sleep, or number of awakenings.1-2

Finally, tracking sleep with a wearable device can make some people anxious if they obsess over their sleep data.1

How to choose the right device or app for you

With so many devices and apps out there, it may be a good idea to ask your doctor for a recommendation. This is especially true if you are interested in an app that charges a monthly or yearly fee. Your doctor may be able to tell you which devices and apps have worked well for other patients or provide more reliable data.

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