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The Benefits and Limitations of Using Sleep Trackers for Better Sleep

Sleep trackers are changing how we think about and measure rest, but the technology still has some work cut out for it.

A person taking a nap on grass

Just as fitness trackers have become ubiquitous on wrists across the U.S., more and more people are now implementing sleep trackers in an effort to understand and improve their sleep habits. One survey found that 28 percent of participants utilized a mobile app to track their sleep, while another (less formal) survey found that 73 percent of respondents who track sleep do so using wearable tech.

But even though consumer awareness of sleep trackers is on the rise, there are still a lot of misconceptions about what these tools can and cannot do. So let’s clear a few things up. Once you have a better understanding of the potential benefits and limitations of sleep trackers, you’ll be more equipped to decide whether and how to implement a tracker in pursuit of better sleep.

The Potential Benefits of Sleep Trackers

Sleep trackers can come in several forms, from wearable trackers, to non-wearable technology (aka “contactless” trackers, which can take the form of everything from pillows to mattress covers to standalone monitors), to smartphone apps (which may be standalone or partner with wearable trackers). No matter the form, sleep trackers aren’t the end-all be-all of sleep health. But they can offer a number of benefits:

  • They can tell you when you went to bed and when you got up. This gives you a tool for visualizing and tracking your sleep behaviors over time so you can course-correct if necessary.
  • If they include an accelerometer (as with most wearable sleep trackers), they can measure your movement while you sleep. This gives you insights into whether (and how much) you might have tossed and turned during the night.
  • In some cases (though not all), a tracker will be able to monitor whether you are awake or asleep. They may do this by measuring heart rate and breathing, which can offer insights into whether you’re in a sleeping or wakeful state. That said, there is always a degree of error involved in these assessments.
  • Many wearable sleep trackers also provide fitness tracking, which can give you additional insights into your health and lifestyle.
  • Because modern sleep trackers create a digital recording of a person’s sleep habits, they spare users from needing to take the time to write down this data on their own. This helps encourage more consistent tracking habits.

Bottom line? Because sleep trackers increase the odds that people will, well, track their sleep, this also increases the likelihood that sleep will remain top of mind. This means people are more likely to pay attention to their sleep habits, identify issues as they arise, and (ideally) make lifestyle changes that may enhance their chances of enjoying sound, consistent sleep.

The Potential Limitations of Sleep Trackers

Sleep trackers can make it easier to track your overall sleep patterns, which can encourage a healthier lifestyle and help you make sleep a priority. That said, there are also several limitations of sleep trackers:

  • They won’t always give you insights into your sleep stages. The only way to gather intel about the amount of time you spend in each of the different sleep stages is by measuring your brain waves, which involves a level of functionality that’s not available from most consumer trackers.
  • They won’t diagnose sleep disorders. Because these types of diagnoses require detailed physiological information (including brain wave activity), a consumer sleep tracker is not equipped to serve as a diagnostics tool. For the same reason, it’s not a substitute for medical care.
  • While wearable trackers tend to offer more insights than contactless tech, they can be uncomfortable to wear during sleep.
  • The accuracy of non-wearable trackers may diminish if you share your bed with a partner or pet.
  • The cost for sleep trackers is all over the map, and not all sleep trackers will be available to all budgets.

Because of these limitations—most notably the lack of diagnostic capabilities—in 2018 the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) released a position statement asserting that consumers and doctors should not utilize these tools for diagnosing sleep disorders. The statement also notes that very few trackers are regulated or scientifically validated.  

None of this is to say that sleep trackers are useless. As noted above, they can be very effective in helping people prioritize and better understand their sleep. But it is still important to be aware of their limitations. By knowing the benefits and drawbacks of these tools, you can put them to the best possible use for you.

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