8 best sleep apps for tracking, meditation and waking up gently
Catch your forty winks during these uncertain times with the help of a sleep aid
We all know how important sleep is. But falling – and staying – asleep during times of high stress or crisis can be incredibly difficult. Rolling news and social distancing from loved ones as the world tackles the coronavirus pandemic only adds to this stress and can have a huge impact on your sleep cycle.
Of course, there is a huge amount of advice out there about getting a good night’s sleep. From putting a routine in place, to avoiding using electronic devices. But there are also a number of useful apps which can help you drift off and, crucially, wake up feeling refreshed.
When choosing an app, the first thing to work out is what you would like it to help with. There are those that help you fall asleep through a mix of sound and relaxation techniques, or hypnotherapy – but there are also sleep trackers that help you test the quality of your sleep.
Many of the apps are free to download, so budget shouldn’t be something to worry about, while some brands have chosen to make some of their premium content accessible as we continue with lockdown.
In order to help you make your choice, we have tested apps from across the market. We’ve put intelligent alarm clocks through their paces, listened to dozens of bedtime stories and spent hours pouring over detailed graphs showing our secret nightly rollercoaster between rapid eye movement sleep (Rem) and deep sleep. Our favourites are listed below – so hopefully you’ll be catching your forty winks in no time.
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Portal – Focus, Sleep, Escape: Free to download (optional £3.99 to unlock all premium content), iOS
From spring barley fields in Devon to Monteverde’s cloud forest in Costa Rica, Portal transports users around the world, helping them drift off to sleep with the assistance of some of nature’s most relaxing sounds.
We loved the concept and found the app helped us sleep no matter what our mood. From summer thunderstorms (our favourite), to the rustle of palm tree leaves, there’s a sound to suit everyone – plus you can mix Portal’s audio with other apps if you find that audiobooks or podcasts help you snooze. As an added bonus, the app’s sleep timer and alarm integrate with Philips Hue lighting systems, adding an extra dimension to the ambience with the lights fading in and out.
There are also distinct functions for “focusing” and “escaping”, should you want to add in a little mindfulness to your daily routine. Plus, the latest update means you no longer have to leave the app open and your phone unlocked for the alarm to work. Whether we fancied a quick nap or just wanted to switch off after a long day, this was our go-to sleep aid.
We’d also highly recommend paying the £3.99 so you can access all of the content – it’s worth it, and you'll be supporting a small independent team.
Sleep Cycle: Free to download (optional premium subscription £25 per year), iOS/Android
Launched in 2009, Sleep Cycle is reportedly the most downloaded intelligent alarm clock and sleep tracker. And it’s not hard to see why. The app is simple to use and provides detailed sleep statistics and daily graphs by monitoring your movements in bed, so you can see exactly how long it took you to fall asleep, and how your sleep cycle changed during the night. We found this function extremely accurate, even when the phone was placed on our bedside table or on the floor near our bed, and it helped us understand our sleep better.
The best thing about this app, however, is its customisable alarm. Users are asked to set a wake-up window, from an instant alarm to up to 90 minutes (for example, any time between 7am and 8.30am). The app then wakes you up in a light sleep phase, meaning you get up feeling well rested.
The brand has also released its entire sleep aid programme consisting of multiple tracks to help users fall asleep easily for free, for an unlimited period of time. And for just £25 per year, you can also see how weather affects your sleep quality, compare your sleep data to world sleep statistics, view historical snore trends data and link up to lighting to simulate a natural sunrise. This really is a great app, which will not only help you fall asleep but change the way you understand sleep too.
Calm: Free to download (optional premium subscription £34.99 per year), iOS/Android
Calm is perhaps better known in mindfulness circles, but we’d urge anyone who is having issues falling to sleep to download the app. From the very beginning, when you open Calm, you’ll be greeted with the gentle sound of the outdoors. It varies from person to person, but we loved this touch and found it helped us relax.
As well as guided “daily calm” sessions, which help you unwind and refocus your attention before bed, you can pick from exclusive music tracks engineered to help you sleep. There are also calming tales narrated by celebrities including Stephen Fry and Matthew McConaughey. We genuinely found the latter helped us unwind in the evenings and brought back the wonderful nostalgia of being read a bedtime story.
The latest version of the app includes a new mood check-in feature, which allowed us to reflect on how we were feeling each day. With plenty of content and at just £34.99 for a premium subscription that lasts the whole year (there’s no monthly offer but that equates to just under £3 a month), we also think this app is great value.
White Noise Lite: Free to download, iOS/Android
We were familiar with the concept of “white noise”, but not with how it could be applied usefully – so we were pleasantly surprised that this app significantly improved our sleep. Through using it, we learned that even when we sleep, we’re alert for sounds – whether it is police sirens or the neighbour’s television. The app plays looped background sounds over a wide range of frequencies throughout the night, helping to mask interruptions so you stay asleep.
More than 40 sounds are available, from heavy rain to frogs, a clothes dryer to an oscillating fan, and we could also mix multiple tracks together to make a unique sound suited to our environment and mood. If you can’t find what you’re looking for, you can download thousands of new and additional sounds for free via a separate app, while the makers encourage users to email them if there’s a specific sound they would like and can’t find.
We loved that personal touch, and found that this app really did help us stay asleep by blocking distractions. You can also use it to increase your focus at work and, apparently, pacify crying babies. If you’re distracted by the on-screen adverts, you can upgrade to the brand’s premium app, which also includes improved audio and more alarms.
Relax Melodies: Free to download (optional premium subscription £59.99 per year), iOS/Android
For all those budding composers – or those who just like a super customisable product – Relax Melodies offers users the ability to choose from over 100 sleep sounds and music to create their own mix. From rain to rivers, choirs to cityscape, Tibetan bowls to “womb sounds” (yes, really), we loved being able to scroll through and play something new every night tailored to how we felt.
While there is a limit of 12 sounds at a time, we found this was more than enough to create whatever melody we needed to help us drift off. If you don’t fancy music, there is also a selection of decent guided meditations as well as bedtime stories, from the nation’s favourite detective, Sherlock Holmes, to Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales. While we found the stories didn’t have quite the same effect (the narrator’s voice really didn’t do it for us), the bespoke nature of this app means it deserves a place at the top of everyone’s download lists.
Pillow: Free to download (optional premium subscription for £4.99 a month or £31.99 per year), iOS
Pillow offers a similar service to other sleep trackers on the market, providing users with colour-coded analyses of their sleep. The level of detail is impressive and the app splits each night into chunks so you can see exactly how long you’ve been awake, in Rem, in light sleep and in deep sleep.
We loved the fact the app provided us with a “quality score” each day from the beginning, as well as allowing us to track our mood for free, helping us to better understand long-term trends. We also loved the intelligent alarm clock, which is designed to wake you up a few minutes earlier if it senses that you are in a period of light sleep.
However, we found the app didn’t record accurate data unless it was under your pillow, and the interface wasn’t as user friendly or intuitive as some of the other products we tried (for example, it took a lot of swiping before we found our daily graphs). Overall, a solid product.
Pzizz: Free to download (option premium subscription for £4.49 a month or £44.99 per year), iOS/Android
Pzizz’s tagline is “sleep at the push of a button”. We’d maybe stretch that to two buttons, but it really is astonishing how effective and easy to use this app is. Users are first asked to pick between “sleep”, “nap” and “focus”, and set an alarm. The app then uses sounds and a human voiceover to help you get to sleep, stay asleep and wake up feeling refreshed.
We recommend sticking with this app – it took us a long time to find a sound and voiceover that worked for us, but once we did it genuinely helped to quieten our mind. Use the settings to adjust the gender, type of narration and dreamscape (luckily, with over one billion sequences to explore, we’re pretty sure they’ll be something for everyone), as well as whether you’d like the voice to fade in and out. Pzizz is also highly intuitive, learning over time what sounds you like. This app is one of a handful featured on the NHS website – and gets our seal of approval too.
Relax & Sleep Well: Free to download (optional in-app purchases from £0.99-£3.99), iOS/Android/Amazon Kindle Fire
If you’re looking for an app that will help you de-stress around bedtime, then Relax & Sleep Well may be a good option. Downloaded over three million times, the app mixes hypnotherapy techniques with special background sound effects in certain keys and frequencies to help enhance the meditative effect. We were sceptical at first, but found after a couple of minutes of listening to narrator and self-help audio author Glenn Harrold, we did start to feel more relaxed.
It is worth noting that users only get access to four free hypnosis and meditation recordings, so we found it didn’t have the same long-term impact as some of the other products, and the design reminded us a little of the horoscope books that were popular in the Nineties (there are many, many pictures of Glenn). If you think this will work for you, we’d recommend using headphones in order to get the full experience.
The verdict: Sleep apps
To help us fall asleep, we can’t recommend Portal highly enough, which is why we now use the app on a weekly basis (at the very least). For tracking sleep, Sleep Cycle offers the best functionality and detailed graphs, as well as a decent intelligent alarm clock that helps you wake up more naturally. If you’re looking for something a little more bespoke, then Relax Melodies and White Noise offer great customisable options.
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