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Rocking beds and pillows that nudge when you snore: Tech wants into your bed

Our columnist tries a $5,000 Sleep Number 360 smart bed and investigates other sleep tech that’s flooding the market. Does any of it work?

Tech columnist Geoffrey Fowler tries swaying gently in a bed at CES with Mark Russell, the founder of Rocking Bed. (Geoffrey A. Fowler/The Washington Post)

I’ve tried a mattress with water cooling and another that sways like a boat. I’ve worn brainwave-measuring helmets and rested on pillows that nudge you when you snore. In the hunt for better sleep, I’ve even snuggled up with a robot.

For the gadget industry, sleep is the new exercise — solvable with data. What Fitbits and Apple Watches did for getting moving, consumer tech now wants to do for getting z’s. A third of us suffer from sleep problems, a symptom of unhealthful diets, stress and too much time staring at screens.

So does any of it work? This year at CES, the tech industry confab, I met makers of more than a dozen sleep gadgets that promise to make you feel, perform and look better. And at home, I’ve been testing the Tesla of snooze, a $5,000 Sleep Number 360 P6 smart mattress and frame. It monitors sleep and makes micro-adjustments to the mattress all night — an automated Princess and the Pea.

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Fitbits alone didn’t make Americans skinny, and these gadgets alone won’t make us well-rested. But when I asked four sleep doctors about the rise of sleep tech, their view was cautious optimism. “I am fairly excited these are creating a more educated populace and patients that are more engaged,” says Rohit Budhiraja, sleep clinic director at Harvard’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Fitness watches have for years claimed sleep-tracking functions, but the tech is improving beyond what you can measure on a wrist.

Few consumer sleep gadgets have been cleared by the Food and Drug Administration or are backed by rigorous validation. But some are built on insights from real sleep science. “A lot of devices that are coming out may provide some benefit,” says Rachel Salas, an associate professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins. Some try to fix the bedroom by making it a more comfortable place. Others try to fix the sleeper through data that teaches better habits.

Much of it is promising to some degree — the question is what’s worth it. Seema Khosla, who runs the tech committee of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, tries sleep gadgets herself and understands the appeal of data. But she doesn’t like how some use proprietary algorithms doctors can’t access or understand. “We embrace technology and think it is great, but we are asking that it be validated,” she says.

Just knowing you spent $5,000 on a bed also might keep some up. The doctors I spoke with recommend not buying anything until you’ve taken their free advice: Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. We sleep better in cooler rooms and ones with as little light as possible. And the biggest sleep distraction may be your smartphone, so leave it just in earshot outside the bedroom.

Where might sleep tech help you? Here are four areas where the tech is making strides — and some advice from the doctors on where to be cautious.

1. Measuring sleep

Plenty of people think they get eight hours — until they start measuring. Recording sleep lets you experiment to figure out what helps.

Sleep Number embeds sensors throughout its mattresses, which start at $1,000. They measure each side of the bed for movement — a proxy for restful and restless sleep — as well as heart rate and respiration. The best part: Without futzing with apps, it activates every time it feels someone in the bed and saves data to the cloud.

The smart bed has been a moderate improvement over my dumb bed, though its makers say it takes weeks to really kick in. It has helped me be mindful about getting to bed on time and how exercise and eating affect my sleep. But it left me a bit restless at first, perhaps because I laid in bed ruminating about turning my sleep into data. (There’s already a term — orthosomnia — for becoming so obsessed with quantifying sleep that you actually lose sleep.)

For $150, there’s a new FDA-listed wireless tracker called Beddr SleepTuner that measures even more. Pop the postage-stamp-size sensor on your forehead (via a medical-grade sticker), and in addition to recording your head’s movement, it reads the oxygen in your blood and tries to identify when you stop breathing. That can help you understand why you might be waking up unrested — also an indicator you should see a doctor about sleep apnea.

And there’s a free app called SleepScore that tracks sleep stages using sonar. Place a phone running it by your bed, and it listens for waves bouncing off your body to identify when you’re in light, deep and REM sleep. One big downside: You have to leave your phone close to your bed.

The doctors with whom I spoke have concerns about the accuracy of these measures — particularly for sleep quality — and warn that none can either identify or clear you of a disorder. Think of the scores as a way to track your sleep over time, not a way to figure out if you’re normal.

The other challenge is turning all that data into action. SleepScore, owned by medical device maker ResMed, charges $6 per month to see your trends and get recommendations. For such a pricey bed, Sleep Number makes you do most of the deciphering. Chief executive Shelly Ibach says her app will add better recommendations later this year, and the long-term goal is to connect bed data with other sources, such as exercise from an Apple Watch, to generate highly personalized advice.

2. Stopping snoring

The inventor of a foolproof way to stop snoring will become a billionaire. Until then, there are a few intriguing gadgets — if you can stand bringing them to bed with you.

Bose makes $250 noise-masking headphones called Sleepbuds to help the long-suffering bed partners of people who snore.

For the snoring perpetrator, there are several aggressive connected pillows. The $300 Smart Nora and the 10Minds Smart Motion Pillow use microphones to listen for snoring, and activate pumps or motors to shift your head to positions where you’re less likely to snore — all without waking you up. When I tried the 10Minds version at CES, it felt as if someone (you know who you are) was assertively but lovingly shoving my head to the side.

Another device, the $125 Hupnos (increasing to $179 after a promotion period), is an eye and nose mask that listens for snoring. It first tries to get you to turn your head by subtly vibrating. But if you keep snoring, it’ll send air pressure through your nose to ensure your airway remains open. Ah, the things we do for love.

The red flag: Snoring can be associated with sleep apnea, a serious condition where you aren’t getting enough oxygen. Using one of these devices may cover up the real problem, so it’s worth seeing a doctor.

3. Making you comfy

The biggest target for sleep tech is the bedroom environment: temperature, light, sound and the mattress where you spend a remarkable amount of time. Think of these gadgets like upgrading to business class — you’re paying to be more comfortable, which might just leave you feeling better on the other side.

A few stand out for their creativity. Aromarest, a $120 diffuser, lamp and white-noise machine, lulls you with lavender and wakes you with citrus.

Building on evidence we fall asleep better in cooler places, the $600 Ooler is a water-chilled mattress topper, and Moona is a $300 pillow that does the same for just the head. And then there’s the $3,450 Rocking Bed. It sways you to sleep, inspired by how a hammock synchronizes brain waves during a nap. It was comfy, but after 10 minutes it felt as though the room was moving without me.

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My experience testing the Sleep Number, which lets you adjust firmness on each side of the bed through air chambers, taught me that it can take a while to figure out what kind of mattress is right for you. My first sleep left me with a backache, but that went away as I adjusted the hardness setting.

It’s harder to determine whether Sleep Number’s “responsive air” system — small additional adjustments to mattress pressure throughout the night — makes much difference. The company says its data shows Sleep Number owners are less restless with the function turned on than off.

The problem with much of this stuff is you won’t know what works until you sleep with it. “Make sure you know the refund policy before you buy,” Harvard’s Khosla says. Even some mattresses can be returned, but remember to hold on to your old one.

4. Adjusting your mind

The most-overlooked element of good sleep is a calm mind, especially in a world of smartphones and Netflix binges. Meditation apps such as Headspace can help you disconnect from the day, but doctors warn using your phone before bed might be counterproductive, since you’re staring into light that tells the brain to be alert.

If meditation isn’t for you, perhaps a robot can help. A $550 device called Somnox chills you out by simulating the breathing of a bed companion. Sensors detect your breath, and try to regulate it subconsciously when you hug the cloth-covered robot and feel the rising and falling of its “breathing” and hear its soothing sounds. It’s a high-tech teddy.

There’s also a growing niche of brainwave-reading devices, such as the $500 Dreem. This lightweight cap tracks your brain activity, heart, respiration and movement. You can use the data as feedback for breathing and relaxation exercises. And Dreem also touts the ability to emit “sound stimulations” while you’re in deep sleep, improving its quality.

Not surprisingly, the doctors with whom I spoke were most skeptical about brain gadgets, though they hadn’t reviewed them personally.

“Don’t believe any device that says it will give you the restorative effect of eight hours of sleep in four,” says Rafael Pelayo of the Stanford Sleep Medicine Center. Tech might help you get more out of sleep, but you can’t get away with not sleeping.

Read more tech advice and analysis from Geoffrey A. Fowler:

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