Away from the comforts of home, sleep can be a struggle, but an array of apps, masks and pillows are claiming that they can help.

Michael Witte/New York Times,

Can't sleep? This (yawn) might work

  • New York Times
  • September 6, 2013 - 1:42 PM

As any traveler knows, sleep — on a plane or in a hotel room — can be elusive.

And there’s no shortage of odd-looking contraptions that promise to help, be it the aptly named Ostrich Pillow that cocoons your head in a padded sack or the UpRight Sleeper that prevents your head from falling forward so long as you’re willing to look like Hannibal Lecter post-incarceration.

These gadgets might work — like the SkyRest travel pillow that has won over many fliers despite resembling a giant inflatable cheese wedge — but many people prefer not to travel the world calling to mind large birds and cannibals.

And let’s not pretend we’re going to practice good sleep hygiene by avoiding late-night meals (research shows they can disrupt sleep) and banishing smartphones from our beds, either (the backlight can rattle your body clock).

If you want shut-eye but don’t want to reach for pills or cocktails, road warriors and sleep studies suggest you must control what you see and hear. Of course, sleep is so complex and personal that there’s no universal cure for insomnia.

That said, I set out to test an assortment of new or traveler-recommended products designed to regulate two sleep hurdles we all share: sound and light.

Let’s begin with sound, given the increasingly creative ways to manage it. When your plane cabin is a racket, when music is thumping through the walls of your hotel room or when you simply can’t quiet your mind, earplugs just won’t do.

Airsleep, a new app for iPhones, iPods and iPads, is meant to transport you to dreamland with the sound of rain, waves and wind along with “dreamwave brainwave” technology that supposedly alters brain-wave patterns to help you relax.

The app adds music (think New Age mystics on a sand dune) to the rain, waves and wind, which a lot of people enjoy. I don’t.

You can, however, pay 99 cents to kill the ambient music and modify the “brainwave” tones using a “control freak” tab which, being one, I did.

But in the end, the nature sounds weren’t nuanced or sharp enough for my taste anyway.

The app is free through Dec. 31 and comes with three sounds (rainy day, beach sleep and desert wind).

If, like me, you’re a stickler for unadulterated environmental sounds — a live recording of a storm, for example — there’s Mark Brennan’s lovely Homestead Thunder Storm (99 cents for an MP3 or other digital format), which he captured one summer day as it rolled over his rural home in Nova Scotia (wear headphones to detect the details).

Let there be (no) light

I hope I’ve mentioned an appealing solution or two. Now let’s tackle light.

Eye masks have a lousy reputation. In film and television they’re the unnecessary accouterments of indulgent characters (a la Audrey Hepburn in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”), but seasoned travelers know better.

I’m talking about dark, snug-fitting masks — not the flimsy scraps in drugstores and lingerie catalogs.

A friend who regularly travels swears by the Dream Essentials brand. Its “sweet dreams” contoured sleep mask with earplugs and a pouch is $9.95 on and, although it makes several styles.

At the suggestion of a colleague, I experimented with a technologically enhanced mask, Glo to Sleep by Sound Oasis, a black foam version ($29.99 on Amazon) with small photoluminescent “points of glo” inside.

The company claims that staring at these points helps you “switch off your mind.”

As per the instructions, I kept my eyes open inside the mask, lazily looking up at two symmetrical sets of pale blue smears of light. Almost instantly they brought to mind a skeleton’s ribcage, which subsequently made me think about Halloween candy. I pulled the mask off.

To be fair, I rarely have difficulty falling asleep. I have difficulty staying asleep. Perhaps I’m not the ideal Glo customer.

I am, however, a potential customer for anything that offers a measure of privacy, particularly on an airplane.

Little wonder, then, that I’m tickled by the idea of the Travel HoodiePillow, an inflatable neck pillow ($19.95) attached to — what else? — a hoodie made of sweatshirt material in pink, black, heather gray, fire red or ocean blue. Orders at will ship after Sept. 15.

If I like it, I’ll be the one in black.

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