How to turn any Apple Watch into a sleep tracker

Teach your old Apple Watch a new trick: how to track your sleep habits.


Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Well, so much for the rumor mill. Although we expected the new Apple Watch might include sleep-tracking features, the just-announced Series 5 has no such capabilities. Eh, no biggie — I’ve been monitoring my sleep habits for a couple years already, thanks to apps that work with nearly every Apple Watch model. Best of all, the cost of doing so ranges from free to just a couple bucks.

I first wrote about this a couple years back, and in light of the above news, this seemed the ideal time for an update. If nothing else, now you know that you needn’t hinge any Apple Watch purchase or upgrade plans on sleep-tracking alone. 

It all started when I was feeling unusually tired, which led me to ask my doctor what might be causing it. His first question: “Are you getting enough sleep?” Why, of course I’m getting enough… hmm, wait a second, am I?

There’s a related question: Am I getting good sleep? Well, I have an Apple Watch, and it can track my steps, heart rate, time spent standing and all that — so maybe I’ll just start wearing it to bed and get some answers.

You know the punchline: The Apple Watch still doesn’t do sleep-tracking, at least not out of the box. But there are many third-party apps that can fill in this gap, keeping tabs on how long you sleep and how well.

Read moreThe best health devices to use with your iPhone and Apple Watch

Sleep-tracking considerations: Bulk, brightness and battery

Before we dive into the apps, let’s look at a few key considerations. The first is that you’ll need to wear your watch to bed, which can pose a couple problems. Never mind that it’s a little uncomfortable until you get used to it, there’s also the matter of the watch face lighting up when you make any upward arm movements. And if you think that face isn’t bright when it’s pitch-black, think again.

The fix: Turn off the Wake Screen on Wrist Raise feature, which you can do by swiping up on your watch face and enabling Theater Mode. This disables raise-to-wake as well as notifications.

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Put your Apple Watch into Theater Mode before you go to sleep.


Rick Broida/CNET

A little tougher to manage is the battery issue. My watch usually has only about 30-40% remaining at the end of the day. If I don’t top it off, I’ll wake up with very little power left — not nearly enough to get me through the day.

The fix: When you wake up in the morning, toss the watch on the charger while you shower, eat breakfast and so on. After 30 minutes or so, it should have enough juice for the next 24 hours. Alternately, consider charging it while you’re getting ready for bed, reading or whatever. The only catch is you have to remember to put it back on before nodding off.

Sleep-tracking apps

sleep-watch-by-bodymatterssleep-watch-by-bodymatters

Bodymatters’ free Sleep Watch app captures a wealth of sleep data and presents it for review on your Apple Watch.


Bodymatters

I spent some nights with three sleep apps for Watch OS. There are others, certainly, but I feel these are pretty representative of what’s out there. Here’s a quick overview of each. Note that CNET may receive a share of revenue from the purchase of any products listed here.

AutoSleep Tracker ($2.99, £2.99, AU$4.49)

Tracking sleep means wearing your watch to bed, right? Not necessarily: AutoSleep works even if you don’t wear it some nights. When that happens, it starts tracking your hours as soon as you put the watch on the charger, then stops when you put the watch back on in the morning or you first use your phone.

Of course, that’s just time tracking — the real benefits come from wearing your watch. When you do that, the app measures sleep hours and quality, restlessness, heart rate and more. And then it presents all that data using Apple Health-style visuals.

Sleep Tracker Plus Plus ($1.99, £1.99, AU$2.99)

Also known as SleepMatic for some reason, this inexpensive app is my current favorite, if only because I find its presentation of sleep data to be the clearest. At a glance, you get to see how much light sleep you got, how much deep sleep, how long it took you to fall asleep and so on.

Another perk: a “smart” alarm can wake you up when the app detects you’re in a light sleep phase, as opposed to your bedside alarm that might wrestle you from a deep slumber — and leave you feeling groggy and angry. (No? Just me?)

Sleep Watch (free)

Bodymatter’s Sleep Watch wins the “most improved” award, not only because it now does a much better job presenting sleep data, but also because it’s now free. (It previously cost $5.)

Well, “freemium”: If you want access to premium features, there’s a $2.99-per-month subscription option. Thankfully, you don’t need that to squeeze plenty of helpful sleep data from the app. It measures not only total sleep time, but also restful sleep time, sleep rhythm, sleep disruptions, heart rate and more. 

Have you found an Apple Watch sleep app you like better than any of these? Tell us about it in the comments!

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As noted above, this post was previously published two years ago and has been updated to reflect new information.

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