Sleep monitors explained: Rest longer and feel better

Are you normal? We interpret your sleep data so you can rest easier

Everyone's looking for a better night's shut-eye. Each morning, many of us wake up groggy-eyed, promising ourselves, "Tonight, I'm actually going to get an early night." And sometimes we do, and sometimes we don't. Sometimes we sleep terribly; sometimes we think we've slept well but still feel iffy the next day. And when it comes to actually tracking our sleep, it's not always easy to interpret the data, let alone know how to improve.

What do all the graphs mean? How much deep sleep do you need? And should your chart really look like that? Well, we've spoken to sleep experts and tried a range of trackers, from the Withings Aura to the Misfit Shine 2 to the Fitbit Alta HR, to try and find the answers you're looking for.

How does it work?

Virtually every fitness tracker has the ability to map your shut-eye, but they don't all work the same. They all continuously monitor your movements during sleep – known in professional sleep circles as actigraphy – and assess sleep-wake cycles to see whether you're in deep or light sleep.

Essential reading: The best sleep monitors and trackers

However, some use accelerometers alone to do this, while some trackers have started incorporating heart rate data to get a better sense of just how deep into your sleep you are.

Sleep monitors explained: Rest longer and feel better

This information is then presented to you the next morning, usually as a graph on your smartphone app. Most monitors will give you a calculation estimating how many hours of each type of sleep you've enjoyed and also how often you woke up. If you have a tracker that also measures heart rate, like the Fitbit Alta HR, you'll also be able to see how much time was spent in REM sleep, as this is something that can be calculated when your heart rate is brought into the equation.

Some of the dedicated bedside devices also track sound to record any loud noises during the night to help explain why you woke up, while the Beddit 3 uses a ballistocardiography (BCG) sensor tucked under the sheets to track sleep quality and duration, heart rate and respiration rate. Like some others, it also has a mic to detect snoring, which can be a good indicator of sleep quality. Meanwhile the ResMed S+ detects your breathing patterns from afar to try and work out what stage of sleep you're in.

Sleep monitors explained: Rest longer and feel better

While not as accurate as professional sleep monitoring equipment, or lab tests, fitness bands can help paint a clearer picture of your own sleep cycles. Dedicated bed devices can go deeper, but again, outside of lab conditions it can be tough to get an accurate reading every single night.

But what is good sleep?

While most of us still think of a solid eight hours as being enough sleep, this doesn't take into account the number of times you wake up, or how much time is spent in each sleep cycle. We also vary, person to person, in how much sleep we need to feel recovered the next day.

A good night's sleep consists of around five or six sleep cycles. One cycle consists of the following:

Stage 1 – The drowsy, relaxed state between being awake and nodding off.

Stage 2 – A deeper sleep where your body temperature cools a little and you become disengaged from your surroundings.

Stages 3 and 4 – 'Deep sleep'. It's harder to wake up from deep sleep because this is when there is the lowest amount of activity in your body. It's also the part of sleep where your body rebuilds itself and restores energy, and hormones are released. This is the good stuff!

After deep sleep, we slip back into Stage 2 for a few minutes before entering 'dream sleep' – known as REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. Each cycle lasts around 1.5 hours and we need to experience all four stages in order to wake up rested.

What does a good night's sleep look like?

Sadly there's no such thing as a perfect sleep chart, but if you sleep like a baby and wake up refreshed your chart will almost certainly show a steady wave of peaks and troughs.

Read this: Why Fitbit wants to tackle sleep apnea in a really big way

Generally speaking, a good night's sleep consists of cycles lasting for around 90 minutes. Notice that for every cycle the person goes into less deep sleep; this is typical for a normal sleep graph.

And while a few drinks can help you fall asleep faster, you can see from this graph that they also mean you'll probably have a lot less deep sleep, be more restless and wake up earlier than usual. Alcohol also tends to keep your heart rate higher.

Sleep monitor - Get more deep sleep

But as Professor Colin Espie, world sleep expert from the University of Oxford and Chief Clinical Officer at Sleepio, explains:

"Each fitness monitor varies in the activities it monitors, the methods used to record them and the feedback given on the data collected. You may have to become your own detective to discover how the tracked data correlates with how you feel during the day and any factors that affect your sleep."

How much sleep is healthy?

Espie continued: "The number of hours' sleep you need is as individual as your shoe size. Don't assume you need the often-quoted seven-to-eight hours – in fact a shorter sleep may mean a better quality sleep."

The secret, according to the professor, is "discovering the sleep that you personally need, and then making that your sleep pattern."

To gauge just how much shut-eye you need, it is worth analysing how you feel on different amounts of sleep. Do you wake up drowsy after nine hours and struggle to drag yourself out of bed, or are you more productive with an earlier start to the day?

As a general rule however, newborn babies need roughly 12–18 hours, kids could do with 10–11 hours, teenagers (contrary to popular myth) only need around 8.5 hours while adults manage on 7–9 hours a day. So while there's some variation between individuals, nobody can function on four hours sleep a night and expect to remain fit and healthy forever.

How can we get more deep sleep?

Sleep monitor - Get more deep sleep

According to Professor Espie, "there are many small, practical steps you can take to make your day more sleep-friendly, from getting some exercise to cutting down on caffeine after lunch." But he recommends developing your own "personal wind-down routine".

Ideally this would consist of "an hour to an hour and a half before you go to bed when you don't do any work, avoid any 'stimulating' activity such as strenuous exercise, turn off any electronic devices and give yourself time to relax."

Easier said than done, especially if you like a night out and/or box set binges, but enjoying better sleep takes practice.

  • As unrealistic as it sounds, try and get to bed by 9:30pm at least twice a week. It will help pay off your sleep debt and make work more productive.
  • Avoid the lie-in at weekends as your internal body clock (circadian rhythm) doesn't stop for Saturdays. Force yourself out of bed and you'll sleep better during the week. Stanford sleep science expert Dr Zeitzer told us: "Changing your sleep patterns will indirectly, through differences in light exposure, change your circadian clock, which helps your brain to anticipate 'normal' or expected sleep timing. So, this would make falling asleep the next night difficult."
  • Call last orders at the bar at least three hours before bed time to give your body time to process the alcohol. If your blood is clear of alcohol, you'll sleep better.

How can you sleep more soundly?

"A reliable schedule is a critical part of being a healthy sleeper," suggests Professor Espie. "You should make the time to have a wind-down routine to help you relax before bed, and put your day to rest. Aim to stop your work/activity at least 60-90 minutes before bed, and keep your bedroom dark to help signal the body that it's time for bed."

"Give your mind something to focus on; one technique that's proven to work is using imagery. Imagine a scene that is calming and relaxing like walking through a favourite park or sailing in a gentle breeze – something that is engaging rather than exciting to the brain."

If you're unsure what to do with your sleep data, apps such as Sleepio sync with data from devices from trackers to help build a weekly plan, using CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) techniques, to help train your mind and body into sleeping better.

Sleep monitors explained: Rest longer and feel better

You should also be wary of external factors that can impact your sleep. During our sleep diary, we discovered this was a key issue. Light, sound, and even dust are all things that can interfere with rest. If you think your sleep is suffering, you can try to ascertain any external factors that may be causing it. Devices like the Withings Aura keep a lookout for these things.

However, as we found in our sleep diary, overanalysing sleep can end up having the reverse affect. Getting good quality sleep is important, but over-obsessing leads to stress that might only stop you sleeping well. For that reason, it might be worth finding a device that can track your sleep with as little required input each night from you. No one tracker out there is perfect, so you have to weigh up what's most useful to you.

How can you fall asleep faster?

Worrying about not sleeping, the to-do list waiting at work or the state of your bank balance will keep even the heaviest of sleepers awake at night, but how can you get to sleep quicker? Follow these tips for a better night's kip:

  • Bedtime routines aren't just for toddlers: a relaxing bath or listening to soft music can help you prepare for sleep.
  • Turn down the thermostat as it is easier to sleep soundly in a cooler room.
  • The more you exercise, the more likely you are to improve your sleeping patterns.
  • Eat pumpkin seeds – they contain high amounts of zinc, which can help the brain convert tryptophan into serotonin which helps you sleep easier.
  • Don't drink caffeine after lunch and go easy on the alcohol.
  • Turn off your tablets, as light from gadgets can inhibit and delay the production of melatonin, making it more difficult to get to sleep.
  • Some of the bedside devices use a mix of light and sound to help soothe you into sleep. If you struggle drifting off, it might be worth giving them a try.
  • Avoid spending time in bed when you're not sleeping, as you need to create a positive association with being in bed and being asleep.
  • Learn to listen to your body – if you're feeling tired in the evening, it's probably time for bed. As Dr Zeitzer told us, "When your brain gets tired but you 'fight' the tiredness (ie, try to stay awake), it compensates, we think, by overdriving wake-promoting systems. As the effect of overdriving these wake-promoting systems wane, the tiredness comes back and you either go to sleep or get another jolt of wakefulness. This is most obviously seen in younger children, though it still happens in adults, it's just less obvious."

Shop for recommended sleep trackers on Amazon

Fitbit Alta HR
Fitbit Alta HR
Withings Aura
Withings Aura
Nokia Steel HR
Nokia Steel HR
Polar A370
Polar A370

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  • SadDay4Jrnlism says:

    I'm not sure if I've just read an serious attempt at journalism or the first draft of a high school freshman's composition paper. I came here looking for reviews of sleep monitoring devices, but I leave in disappointment. It's clearly obvious no one proofread this before posting and the grammatical errors are just too distracting. The content of this article/blog post/term paper/whatever barely speaks to the title for which it was written. Unfortunately it's less about explaining sleep monitors and more about explaining why I don't need them. Who needs expensive devices or apps with their pretty graphs when all I need to do is make a few lifestyle changes and record how I feel the next day? Sounds like what I really need is a journaling app. Hell, I could even do that with pen and paper. 

    By the way, there's no need to introduce the same guy twice in back to back paragraphs, especially when he's the only person quoted throughout this whole mess. Spend less time looking up fancy words in your thesaurus and focus on creating better quality content. This isn't the damn New Yorker. 

    • Lemonjell says:

      Ouch, someone woke up on the wrong side of the bed...probably should have taken the advice in this article into account...

      • Invocation says:

        There are grammatical errors though, he is right. places where I had to read sentances several times to figure out there were missing words or periods.

        • Lady_Astarte says:

          You had to read WHAT several times??!

    • BobH says:

      get a proper job and work in the day, not spending all of your time on the Internet (11.13). Then you would understand what the writer has written. Probably a lot of the mistakes are with the automatic spelling correction. If only you and others would read what you have written after there would be less mistakes in the modern world.

      A serious not an serious.

      Sleep monitors explained not reviewed.

      You obviously have a reading problem.

      From a retired 73 year old man.

      • EvilRobot says:

        i concur. However, you haven't used CAPS where usually required. You may get a scorn filled reply!

    • Rugito says:

      Wow gramma police... If you could comprehend the sentences then clearly it is not worth mentioning. Also how did you expect to change your sleep without lifestyle changes? Clearly the apps are meant for monitoring your progress. At least this blog puts out valuable content, all you have done is moan.

    • Sp7 says:

      I found exactly what I was searching for in this article. SadDay4Jrnlism get a life you troll. Know what you're searching for before you start bashing people. If you want a sleep monitor review the search 'Sleep Monitor Review.' This is clearly titled 'Sleep Monitors Explained' you moron. 

      Sure it could've been written better, but if you read above the level of an average 5th-grader you don't have to examine every single word to decipher the meaning. The fact that you took time to respond to this in the manner in which you did, makes me think you have some deep rooted personal issues, as well as too much time on your hands. Grow up and stop being a troll. 

    • Larien says:

      Dear "SadDay"

      It truly is a sad day to find your response to this article so full of anger and judgment.  What you need you won't find in any sleep monitor, although a good night's sleep is as good a place as any to start.  I enjoyed this article. It generally answered my questions concerning  how my monitor records and displays information as well as some general tips for improving my sleep habits. Personally, I can't imagine living day after day with the anger you carry. 

    • petapaints says:

      First off I thought SadDay4's comments were really harsh. I had understood the articles meaning but thought let's read on as to how it should be modified from a writing point of view. For me a revelation. Since school I have struggled with everything written. I went to primary school in Australia in the 60's where the look see method of reading was taught - no phonetics, no grammer, I was a hopeless speller and as I progressed through school the whole essay thing became a nightmare. My encounter with SadDay is the first time I've come across examples of punctuation Etc Etc before and after a 'real time' example despite seeking help.  (returned to study in my 50's signed up for tutoring at the help centre and after 12 months the tutor advised I pay my daughter to rewrite essays for me!!!!)

      So dear Mr SadDay, feel free to pick the above plebe for help apart or suggest a sentence writing for dummies book with more examples as my bucket list includes going back to uni and getting a degree but couldn't face it because of preparing/writing essays. 

      Ps some of the above I really tried to get right and other bits I left!!! Wo

    • giancarlo says:

      I'll try to make this as grammatically incorrect as possible, just to piss you off. Your an douche.

  • Rugito says:

    Wow gramma police... If you could comprehend the sentences then clearly it is not worth mentioning. Also how did you expect to change your sleep without lifestyle changes? Clearly the apps are meant for monitoring your progress. At least this person puts out valuable content, all you have done is moan.

  • LittleTee says:

    Thank you. A really interesting article. :-) 

  • Zenrider says:

    Very helpful article. I will experiment with the recommendations. It is the message that is being sought, for which I am very grateful. 

  • Radiatehope says:

    Thank you for this informative article. I found exactly what I was looking for. 

    I recently got a Garmin vivoactive, before that I've never monitored my sleep. I like seeing the graphs, data is important. I think I agree with you though, how I feel after I wake up.

    Thanks again!

  • Larien says:

    Dear Sad Day,

    It is a sad day to find your comments so full of anger and judgment. What you need you will not find in any sleep monitor although a good night's sleep is as good a place as any to start. I enjoyed the article. It generally answered my questions which is what I was looking for. I cannot imagine living day after day with the anger you carry.

  • Falk3 says:

    Just acquired the Ôura ring, which I have read provides the most accurate sleep measurement of the wearables today.  The app is detailed but easy to understand.  Overtime, the ring "learns" about you and makes recommendations for recovery and performance.  Very cool!

  • Jhawk44 says:

    While there are some obvious mistakes that a poor writer like me could pick up on, overall the article served its purpose for me.  For the first troll, if you came away from the article thinking that you probably only need pen and paper, not a wearable, that would mean the writer did an AMAZING job.  You read an article, made a deduction about your own life because of the content it contained, and have changed your own actions and lifestyle as a result.

    Thanks Chris!

  • Dalton says:

    Is this real life? 

    There is something to be learned from everything. Especially via sources that do not charge $$ for their information. 

    Be grateful 

  • WantTobeHealthy says:

    Just what I was after! Great info thanks :-)

  • anonymo says:

    Am I the only one that finds the first comment from "SadDay4Jrnlism" ironic? The use of "an" instead of "a". If you are going to bash on grammar you should probably check to make sure you don't have any mistakes. Hahahahahaaa....Check it out:

    "SadDay4Jrnlism says:

    I'm not sure if I've just read an serious attempt at journalism or the first draft of a high school freshman's composition paper. I came here looking for reviews of sleep monitoring devices, but I leave in disappointment. It's clearly obvious no one proofread this before posting and the grammatical errors are just too distracting." 

  • Twinertwin says:

    Sad day

  • AngelaT says:

    Thank you for all the info!T

  • Patto says:

    I agree with the editing police. I find it really annoying when I have to do the edits in my head simply because the writer lacks the necessary skills.  Chris can learn from this and become a better writer. Don't be afraid to help others lift their game, people.  The world is full of ordinary, let Chris be extraordinary if he wishes to and he can thank those who bothered to take the time to give him a nudge.

  • rockchick says:

    LMAO - Wasn't this supposed to be an article explaining Sleep Monitors, instead of an open invitation to attack grammatical errors and sentence structure??

    Oh no, a double question mark..... Call the police!!!!!!!

  • PixieSix says:

    I think you are all CRAZY! What the he**?? You came to this article looking for info about sleep trackers and crucified the writer of this free information for his grammar and punctuation? I like the response, "is this real life?". 

    I will give you my two cents (or is it sense? J/k).

    I have the Jawbone Up4. I have Narcolepsy and Klien Levin Syndrome. I sleep up to 20 hours a day and never feel rested because my sleep wake cycles are totally insane. I dream before I even close my eyes and after I've opened them upon waking in sleep paralysis. I get very little deep sleep (sometimes none or only mere minutes in a 10 hour + stretch). I have what the tracker determines are "wake ups" but they are automatic behavior, such as me sitting up and doing things in my sleep that we all normally do while awake. I use the fracker only as a tool to show me where the wake ups occur so I can go to that part of my video footage to see what I was doing. I also have a security camera that records me at night.

    I like the tracker that I have. However these are not entirely reliable. They are not an EEG and sleep doctors and neurologists will all agree that the tracker can't tell if you are in a certain stage of sleep simply by movement or respiration censors. Even if they tracked temp and pulse, they don't track brain waves which is the only way to truly tell what stages of sleep you are in at night. 

    I like mine because it gives me an idea of when I'm having automatic behaviors in my sleep that read as awake and I can also catch sleep attacks and know how long it took me to fall asleep. I'm happy with mine in combination with the camera. But like my neurologist said, my sleep specialist said and my PCP said, these are not accurate devices and if you were to bring the app in to them they would tell you a sleep study is the only way to get a good reading, and even those aren't 100%. 

    For me, it was worth the money, even before I got the camera. I have a bit of a unique case which makes me wish they did have more accurate devices. An be aware that the Jawbone is not waterproof or water resistant. It also tracks your steps and I'm disappointed that I have to remove it for work because it can't get wet. 

    So to the writer of this revie above, thank you! I'm sorry there are hateful people out there just being hateful. This is not an English class. But, to the grammar, have fun with mine. Oh and here's my comment to you, find a hobby and stop wasting your life being cruel. 

  • SaySomthgUseful says:

    First, I'd like to thank Chris for this helpful article. I have been trying out various apps to help me learn about my own sleep patterns. Logically, I can't make correct and impactful changes unless I understand the issues first. I appreciate that his article included both information about various sleep monitoring options and tips for a better night's sleep.

    Secondly, I'd like to focus on some things Chris did in his article that were nice for a reader and his audience. These appear to have been overlooked by, or oblivious to, those that commented with criticism only. True critics must be capable of both influencing and inspiring the other person. They also balance their critique with good and bad. To do this, you must have character, grace and tact. It's apparent that some that chose to criticize here possess none of these. (Cough, know who you are.) Chris did something known as Information Mapping, which is actually a smart approach and a gift to readers. It allows you to skip, scan, and retrieve the portion you want or need. His use of sub-headers and grouping his content or points provides this. Also, I think he was thorough. He could have just explained how these monitors work and not offered any tips or help on how to make a few changes in your routine. But he didn't. He was thoughtful and intentful. (Ahem. Something critics overlook when they are fulfilling their own selfish need to pontificate, or seem important, versus truly desiring to help.)

    So, thank you again, Chris. We all make mistakes. And we shouldn't live or die by grammar or punctuation. Even your critics made mistakes. There are far greater problems in the world. And, we should simply be grateful for the internet, our freedoms, and that we can even read and write.

    I leave you with these....

    “Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain and most fools do.”
– Benjamin Franklin

    “I have yet to find the man, however exalted his station, who did not do better work and put forth greater effort under a spirit of approval than under a spirit of criticism.”
– Charles Schwab

  • Anj_Aradhya says:

    This write-up provides  a reasonable information to make aware of the sleeping patterns and what we should try to do to get a good sleep to wake next morning well rested. 

    I have correlated the observations with my own sleeping cycle patterns and found it comparable to what is described here. 

    The recommendations made here are truly worth following for developing a healthy sleeping patterns for a sleep that will give your body the most needed good rest.

  • Saracolleenstar says:

    Thank you for this article. I'm Canadian and for the past 14 years have taught, edited and written in US, UK and even AU English. It's hilarious to me when commenters on articles assume that they know the only acceptable way to write sentences, conjugate verbs, use punctuation and spell words in the world. Rules of English really do vary in different cultures and that is OK, Grammar Police! Just my two cents! :)

    • nico says:

      Hey sad day give the guy break .At least some of us were helped by his article . If all you want is a device there are sites for that . Stop lecturing us on excellent English grammar .Nobody asked you for it.This is about sleep and at least one person was on point with free tips . Not everyone is a University graduate or writing critic and we do not need to be to state our opinions.If you want to lecture go look for an English grammar job at a University near you .

  • Baseballfan says:


         Please disregard all the negative feedback about your articles grammar. While I believe constructive criticism is helpful, you did not ask for it. Most of the criticism you received says nothing about you and everything about the person giving it. 

         I should know. While I am not an English scholar, I have OCD and do have to edit sentences in my head, as I see they should be, in order to read something. However, that is my issue and not the writers problem. 

         Now, having said that, I had no trouble reading your article. I thank you for taking the time to write this informative article. When I searched for the information, your article gave me the information I was looking for.

        You do you, and don't worry about those who criticize every mistake in grammar. That is their issue and not yours. If I were reading an English scholars paper, I would expect perfect grammar. You did a great job of delivering the information and, again, I thank you for the time you took to write it. 

    No one learns to write the same as everyone else.  We all come from different places that may teach something different. To each his own.

    PS I had to edit my comment several times for errors and reread my own sentences several times to correct them. I am sure I still have errors, but that's my issue. For anyone who wishes to correct me, don't bother, as I did not ask you too, nor do I care. 

  • westonvieira says:

    Thank you for your time and effort to help.

  • wearydd says:

    people that are getting upset with grammar are the saddest living creatures... hope they die out soon, because they do not have any kind of joy in life

  • -Sean- says:

    Hey Guys n gals,

    I "gotten" my Garmin at Xmas. I've been wrestling with the why's and wherefores since and trying too understand what I should be seeing when I look at the app. 

    I feel fine when I wake up and sometimes only get 5 hours of sleep - might be from my years of lack of sleep when I done my MBA. 

    THIS ARTICLE helped me lots and has helped me understand that there's no hard and fast rule to work out what's happening. 

    Thanks Chris - good work. 

    P.S. have fun with the wording and YES I know I typed a few errors in there, they are deliberate but wanted to have a bit of fun - and all the comments (negative and positive) have allowed me to have a bit of a chuckle - HAPPY 2017 all. 

  • SimonB says:

    Chris, Very useful, many thanks!

  • Jeepgirl says:

    Thank you. I found this article  very informative and it answered a lot of my questions. 

  • RandiK says:

    Very enlightening article! Thanks for the explanation! I came here for the info, not the grammar. :) Angry troll person needs to get laid. Don't care if that's spelled wrong. 

  • Aditya says:

    I recently bought a fitness band and got reconfirmed that I have a sleep issue.  This may be due to my Lifestyle or a CKD. Need to work on that.  This article has given a significant push forward. Many thanks. 

  • Zarathrustra says:

    There seems to be something wrong with at least one of your graphs - the Temperature.

    Unless I'm missing something, the RHS scale of 72.0 to 77.0 cannot be either Fahrenheit of Celsius. 

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