Sleep-tracking devices: Dos and don'ts

Adults need seven to nine hours of sleep a night, yet many people don't get enough. A cascade of sleep-tracking devices has recently hit the market. But can you trust the data? And do they help improve your sleep? Mayo Clinic Healthy Living Program wellness exercise specialist Thomas M. Rieck weighs in on the do's and don'ts of sleep trackers.

Sleep tracker types

There are some important differences in how sleep trackers work and what kinds of data they collect. The most common sleep trackers include:

  • Wearables. You wear these devices on your wrist or finger while sleeping. They typically collect data about your movement and heart rate. Some also track your breathing patterns. Most of these devices are multipurpose. You can also log your food and track daytime physical activity, including footsteps, heart rate and calories burned.
  • Bedside devices. You place these devices next to your bed. They primarily collect data about your body movement and breathing. They may also store information about the room environment, including temperature, humidity, ambient noise and light.
  • Bed sensors. You place these devices under your sheets or mattress. They collect information about your movement and heart rate. Some devices also track information about the room environment, like temperature and humidity. Smart beds — which have the sensors integrated into the mattresses — also are available.

How to use data from your sleep tracker

Typically, you view the collected data about your sleep in an app. The report includes total sleep time, how often you woke in the night and what times you woke up. Some devices also include a summary of your sleep stages — light sleep versus deep sleep.

Since sleep trackers are a developing technology, Rieck cautions about jumping to conclusions based on your data. He offers a few dos and don'ts to keep in mind:

Do: Use your sleep tracker for total sleep time and sleep habit goals

"Consumer sleep trackers are pretty accurate at tracking total sleep time," says Rieck. So you can feel fairly confident about using a sleep tracker to determine whether you're getting the recommended amount of sleep at night.

Plus, a sleep tracker may help improve your sleep habits. Many apps include features that address sleep hygiene — like bedtime alarms or screen time limits. And some make recommendations to improve your sleep environment — like changing the room temperature or using a white noise machine. Sleep trackers that also track daytime activities might help you notice if things like caffeine and exercise affect your nighttime sleep.

Don't: Use your sleep tracker for sleep quality

"Lend a critical eye to the sleep stage information you get from your device," says Rieck. A sleep tracker can make an educated guess about your sleep stages. But the only way to accurately identify what stage of sleep you are in is to measure brain activity during a clinical sleep study (polysomnography). None of the consumer devices on the market capture this kind of data.

Do: Use your data to start a conversation with your doctor

Says Rieck, "If you have trouble sleeping or suspect you have a sleep problem, be sure to talk to your doctor. And bring your sleep tracker data to your appointment." Your doctor won't use the data to diagnose you — consumer devices are not tested or regulated for clinical diagnosis. But your doctor can look at the data to help determine whether you would benefit from clinical testing.

Don't: Lose sleep over your sleep tracker

For some people, using a sleep tracker leads to increased feelings of anxiety. Are you staying up late to fiddle with your device? Feeling overly anxious about meeting your sleep goals? Or lying awake in bed thinking about how you're not sleeping? If so, using a sleep tracker probably isn't adding value to your life. It's OK to let it go.

Last Updated Mar 28, 2020

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