Our In-house Insomniac Ranks: The Best Sleep Apps of 2021

Our In-house Insomniac Ranks: The Best Sleep Apps of 2021

I really do envy, more than anyone else, people who fall asleep the moment their head hits the pillow. My boyfriend is this way, so I experience the feeling of resentment night after night. Because, dear reader, I have insomnia, and falling asleep is very, very difficult for me.

When I don’t have time to physically exhaust myself enough to make falling asleep a breeze, I turn to sleep apps. I tend to really enjoy bedtime stories (yes, I am 30 and no, I am not ashamed) with calming white noise in the background. But I also think sleep apps should have options for people who prefer things like meditation, or for people who are trying to make waking up easier. I tested twenty sleep apps and only four made the cut. Read on for my favorites!

1. If You’re Looking For Peace: Headspace

Headspace is the brainchild of a meditation/mindfulness teacher and an advertising executive, so there’s no wonder it’s one of the top meditation apps in the world. And that’s what it is: a meditation app, not a sleep app. Headspace is such a popular company, though, that they have an entire arm of their business devoted to sleep. They have a ton of sleep meditations, which work really well at helping you calm your mind and find peace and quiet.

They also recently rolled out what they call “sleep casts” which are kind of guided imagery tours of different towns and spaces in the world. They’re very calming, and super easy to follow along with. The downside? It’s the most expensive app on the list, at $70 a year if you want to unlock all the features. And, like almost all of the sleep apps I tried, the free version just doesn’t have enough content to sustain continued use.

The app is well designed and easy to navigate, and since it’s not exclusively for sleep, I found myself using it more than any of the other apps. It’s really helpful for people living stressful, busy lives who need help slowing down.

2. If You’re Looking For Customization: Relax Melodies: Sleep Sounds

Sleep Sounds is a great app. It’s super well designed, has a very simple interface, and allows for a lot of customization. What I really love about this app is the ability to create your own “sound mix,” and you can either listen to it on its own, or add it to the background of a meditation or a story.

It’s really great if you find yourself just not enjoying a lot of the standard background noises. I personally cannot fall asleep to any sound of water, so being able to make my own custom mix (my favorite is emotional release & vinyl crackle) and put it behind a bedtime story (something I also love!) was really fun.

The downside? Again, the free version was seriously lacking with options. What’s worse, they show you all the premium options with a little lock in the corner, so you know it’s there. It is less expensive than Headspace, though. Right now it’s $40/year, though it’s typically $60. If you really enjoy customizing your experience, this app is a great choice.

3. If You’re Looking For Features: Calm

Calm is the number one app on Apple’s Health and Fitness chart, and for very good reason. Calm, like Headspace, is robust, its uses reaching much further than to help you sleep. One of my favorite sections of Calm is the practices for mental fitness. This was very unique to this app, and I especially really liked doing things meant to strengthen my memory.

The best feature of Calm is the ability to create a daily practice based on what you need on any given day. It’s also ultra intuitive to navigate, which is a huge plus. Calm is definitely very similar to Headspace, but Headspace is a little more regimented, making it better for people new to meditation and mindfulness. That said, if you’re comfortable with meditation, Calm is amazing, and definitely worth a shot.

Cost? Same as Headspace: a whopping $70 a year. Calm does offer a lifetime membership for $400, which feels a little bit insane to me. But hey, it’s really good, so perhaps it’s worth it.

4. If You’re Looking For Sleep Help: Sleep Cycle

If you’re constantly waking up tired, have a snoring or sleep talking problem, or are a restless sleeper, Sleep Cycle is a very cool option. It tracks your sleep cycle, so you see when during your cycle you have issues. It also has this feature that identifies when you’re in the lightest part of your sleep cycle and uses an alarm to wake you up then. I have insomnia and have a terrible time waking up, so I was super excited to try this app.

It works by using your phone’s built-in accelerometer, which measures orientation, acceleration, and angular rotational velocity. You sleep with your phone under your pillow, and it supposedly tracks your movements. Here’s the thing: the accelerometers in our phones can be unreliable, producing inaccuracies between 0.5 and 3 degrees, which, according to some studies, are large enough to produce unreliable results. So… I went into this app with low expectations.

I set my alarm for 6:15 with a 20 minute “wake up phase.” This means that the app will wake me up in that 40 minute window between 5:55 and 6:35 when I’m experiencing my lightest sleep. I wake up early because I’m super productive before 2 pm, so I want to make my morning as long as possible. Problem is I really hate waking up early.

To my very happy surprise, the tracker WORKED! Some mornings it woke me up at 5:57, some mornings at 6:25, and I had a much easier time getting myself out of bed than usual. I’ve continued using this app just for this feature, and even though I detest sleeping with my phone in my bed, it’s worth it to be able to get up on time.

I didn’t care about the data at all, but if you’re into statistics, it has a really robust data feature, especially if you go for the premium version. That brings us to price. The free version has all the things I need, which makes me very happy. The premium version is $30 a year, so it’s pretty easy on the wallet as far as sleep apps seem to go.

5. If You’re Looking For FREE: Sleep Cycle

Sleep Cycle is the only app I reviewed that had a free version worth anything. So if you’re looking for meditations and bedtime stories, you’ll have to either live with scant content from Headspace, Relax Melodies, and Calm, or you’ll have to fork over the cash.

I will give honorable mention to White Noise Lite and Nature Sounds, because they do allow some control and customization of pleasant sleep sounds. But that’s all they offer.

Although I’m pretty bummed about the lack of free sleep content out there, all the above apps are truly great. So if you find yourself needing help getting to sleep night after night, paying for premium is likely worth it.

Featured image: @hey.its.rachel.b