Whenever I address the importance of sleep in one of my seminars on Personal Sustainability for Leaders and Teams, I ask if anyone in the audience has used a sleep-cycle app such as Sleep Cycle or Sleep Bot.

There is always a handful of people who have, and their experience ranges from ‘so-so’ to ‘great – changed my mornings completely.’

So what’s at work here – the placebo or a real effect?

Sleep cycle apps track your movement overnight in order to estimate the sleep stage you are in. It then wakes you in a light stage of sleep, making it much easier to get out of bed than if the alarm drags you out of a deep sleep-stage, which can leave you feeling groggy and disoriented. In practice this means you have to take your phone to bed with you, and you set your alarm with about a half an hour leeway, to allow for an optimal waking time. That’s the premise anyway.

NapNow asked its scientific advisor Professor Drew Dawson for his opinion on these popular health apps.

Dawson: “None of them have any validated or published data to support their claims, so the jury is out.

However we do know you can’t detect sleep stage based on movement, you need to be monitoring brainwaves and eye movement to do that accurately.

In sleep research, we do use acti-graphs (wrist-worn gadgets that track how much you move), but only to gauge how much overall sleep someone gets, and how much they wake up.  By and large people don’t move when they are asleep, except when they get to the end of a Rapid Eye Movement period (at about the 90 minute mark) when they wake up briefly and roll over and go back to sleep.

We don’t used them to detect sleep stage.”

So, what to do while the jury is out on these apps? Well, enjoy them by all means, especially if they seem to help you pay more attention to getting enough good quality sleep.  But don’t lose sight of the basics:

  • If you need an alarm clock to wake up, you are probably sleep deprived.
  • Aim to go to bed early enough so you can wake spontaneously – then you are probably getting enough sleep. That’s true except if have a depressive illness and can’t maintain sleep beyond about four or five hours.
  • Focus on keeping a regular schedule. Your body thrives on predictability, to the extent that some mornings you’ll find yourself waking up just minutes before your alarm is scheduled to go off.
  • If you get enough sleep but don’t want to get out of bed early in the morning, something else is going. It may be due to other lifestyle issues, a mental health condition or that you’re really not enjoying your life right now.