Using Technology to Go the Fuck to Sleep

screenshot of the Ambiance app on an iPhoneAs I near my thirtieth birthday, I’m becoming more and more familiar with intermittent bouts of insomnia. Sometimes I’ll sleep great for a week or two, but other times I have difficulty falling asleep or (more new for me) staying asleep. I’m even writing this post at 2:30 in the morning after five hours of sleep. In other words, my life has turned into one of those sleeping pill commercials. But I’m not particularly keen on pharmaceutical remedies, other than the occasional dose of valerian root when I have something really important in the morning, so I’ve turned to whatever my iPhone can offer to seek assistance in turning my brain off and catching some zzzs. This post isn’t a comprehensive review of all the apps and podcasts out there in this genre, but it’s a sampling of some of the things I’ve tried. Let me know about your strategies in the comments!

Background Noise

Normally, one of the nice things about auditory processing is that noise doesn’t really bother me when trying to go to sleep. I have literally slept through hurricanes. But when our house had a pest problem, I found that mice skittering close enough so that I could hear it dialed up the anxiety so that I could never sleep, and so I looked into some virtual white noise machines to calm my nerves when plain old music had me too keyed up.
I settled on an app called Ambiance ($2.99 for the full version, iOS or Android). Paying for the full version gets you a ton of sounds (3,500) apparently, and there’s a wide range of options. You can pick actual white noise, brown noise, etc. or a range of nature and more urban sounds. The app lets you preview different options, and then you can add them to your personal library to play through the night. I tend to cycle between a few thunderstorm options, waves, and oddly, a recording of kids playing at a pool.


I haven’t tried meditation apps, but instead just use the free Podcasts app to search for various meditation, visualization, and hypnosis options designed for sleep. My favorite is “Rejuvenating Sleep” from the Meditation Podcast, which is long enough for serious insomnia and includes a nice backing track of soothing nature sounds. Other standbys are “Audios for Sleep and Relaxation” from the Relaxation Meditation Podcast and “Relax into Sleep” from Meditation Oasis. I also really like the Tracks to Relax hypnosis podcast, but keep in mind that hypnosis tracks not designed specifically for sleep often have a call back, which means you’ll suddenly become awake and aware after your trance state rather than falling asleep. On the other hand, many of the relaxation podcasts have visualizations not specifically designed for sleep that work well for that purpose.

Sleep Monitoring

If you suspect you might have a serious sleep problem, or are just curious about how you sleep and don’t normally have someone in the bed to let you know, a sleep monitoring app may be helpful. I like MotionX 24/7, which is just 99 cents for iPhone at the moment. You can record the sounds of your sleep at random points throughout your sleep cycle, but even more awesome, if you sleep with your phone on your mattress and have this app going, it will actually wake you up with an alarm at the point in your sleep cycle that will be more restful and comfortable. I’ve noticed that I wake up extremely groggy these days and often have physical difficulty not going back to sleep, so I find this app really useful to find a time that will wake me up feeling more alert. You tell it the ideal time to wake up, and how early you’re willing to wake up, and it uses those parameters and the sleep monitoring to figure out when best to wake you. We are living in the future.


The last thing I tried was “Sleep with Me,” a podcast designed to help you fall asleep by telling a distracting bedtime story. The idea is that the story starts out interesting, but gets more and more boring so that you’re likely to drift off. I didn’t find this to be particular useful for me, as the speaker’s voice was a bit grating as he gives the characters voices, and I was too tempted to actually pay attention to the story or just ignore it and have my own thoughts. But if meditation and other traditional methods don’t work as well for you, you might try this one out.

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