Do sleep-hacking apps actually work? We found out.

Image: iStock.

After a particularly tumultuous night, my bereaved partner was fed up.

Not only was I tossing, turning, and attempting to lay diagonally like usual – I also hit the snooze button a record 15 times. Fifteen times my obnoxious phone alarm was hastily muffled, accompanied with my meagre promises: “Yes, OK, I’m getting up this time.”


This led to an intervention of sorts.

“Try this application,” he suggested. “It times exactly how many sleep cycles you will go through in a night and when you should set your alarm to coincide with the lighter stage of the cycle.”

Apparently this would mean I’d wake up refreshed and care free instead of something that looks and sounds like The Grudge.

It was worth a shot.

During dinner I entered my regular wake up time into the application. For a 6:30am rise I’d need to be asleep by 9:30pm or 11:00pm. Not so hard.

When my Spice Girls tune blared the next morning I didn’t exactly jump out of bed but for once in a very long time I didn’t hit snooze. MAGIC, I thought.

But after two weeks of testing I felt the results had been inconsistent. And the worst part was that I found myself getting less sleep in order to wake up at the app recommended time.

If you miss your 11:00pm bed time it's an hour and a half wait for some shut eye. Image:

I decided to talk to someone who knew a bit more than Dr Google about sleep cycles to find out if I should continue using my app.

"Sleep stages is a way that our field has somewhat arbitrarily divided up the EEG signals [electroencephalogram, a recording of the electrical activity of the brain] that we collect when people are sleeping. This enables us to categorise what kind of sleep people are having," says Dr Siobhan Banks from the Sleep Health Foundation.

"With a sleep cycle you start off in a lighter stage of sleep then you gradually progress into a deeper stage of sleep. After that you’ll go into a dreaming stage of sleep for a little while and then back into a lighter stage and then a deep stage again and this kind of cycles through the whole entire night."

Where you wake up in this cycle can certainly have an impact on how you feel. (Post continues after gallery.)

So while applications that claim to find a bedtime for you that will result in you waking during a lighter sleep cycle might sound fantastic in theory, they aren't necessarily that accurate.

“I think these apps are basically estimating what the average length of a sleep cycle is (approximately 90 minutes or an hour and a half)," Banks explains.

"This all depends on the person; their age, whether they are sleep deprived, if they are a shift worker, if they’re trying to sleep during the day or at night - so it’s highly variable.”

Yep, it's pretty unlikely that a sleep app is going to get your individual sleep rhythm correct.

So while these tools might help to educate you about sleep patterns, they're not to be relied on solely.

"Where it can become a little bit of a problem is when people become obsessed about their sleep or they worry about their sleep a lot," Banks says.

So should I continue sacrificing time with my beloved doona to abide by an application's recommendation? It's a big, fat no.

"It really is all about the length of sleep over the 24-hour period. For most people who are only going to have one period of sleep, it’s better to get as much as you can in that single period."

So that settles it for me - goodbye app and hello early bed time.

How many hours of sleep do you get?

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