Some of us have enough trouble sleeping in our beds at home, let alone while traveling or changing time zones.
There are those who drift off by instructing their Amazon Echo or Google Home to play recordings of babbling brooks and cicadas. Others listen to podcasts like "Sleep With Me," which tells dull bedtime stories. Some watch YouTube videos of people whispering or performing mundane tasks, or listen to electronic and ambient music, like the British group Marconi Union's "Weightless," which has been reported to induce deep relaxation.
What might do the trick for you?
More and more smartphone apps are promising solutions. They join the ranks of traditional white noise and sleep machines with settings said to aid relaxation or alleviate jet lag. Yet such gadgets, even so-called portable models that come with their own cases, are clunkier and costlier than apps.
The Tranquil Moments Bedside Speaker & Sleep Sounds from Brookstone, for instance, has a dozen sounds (like ocean surf and rain); is portable and more intuitive to use than most sleep machines; has a nice clear sound (the speaker can also pair with your smartphone for when you want to play your own music); and can be made loud enough to drown out noisy neighbors, which not all devices, and especially not all apps, can do. Yet it costs $99.99, is about the size of a large softball and weighs roughly half a pound. (If you're in the market for a bedside white noise machine, Wirecutter recommends the LectroFan by ASTI and the Marpac Dohm DS, each about $49.95.)
Apps, not hardware
For frequent travelers, such devices aren't practical solutions to take hither and yon. And so instead they turn to free white noise and meditation apps like myNoise, Relax Melodies (among my favorites, as it's lovely to look at and allows for easy mixing of sounds like wind and rain), Rain Rain Sleep Sounds, White Noise Deep Sleep Sounds and Calm. An app called Seasons from Logicworks is delightful as you can choose sounds — like spring peepers, a barbecue, leaf raking and icicles dripping — based on the four seasons.
For no money or a few dollars on iTunes, you can download soothing music and nature sounds, and you need not pack any extra gear. A colleague recommends White Noise Plus, and White Noise Ambience, from the makers of the Seasons app. (Her favorite sleep sound? "Airplane cabin.")
A good method involves a combination of a gadget called SleepPhones, along with audio or videos of soft background talking (which for me seems to best mask other voices in hotel hallways and on airplanes). SleepPhones are flat speakers in a soft, lightly padded headband that allow side sleepers to avoid the dreaded in-ear pain from earbuds. It's designed to fit around your forehead, although I like to position the band so the speakers are over my ears and the fabric lightly covers my eyes. The options include a wireless version ($99.95) and a wired version ($39.95), and both play any music, talk radio or white noise you have on your smartphone or computer.
There are downsides. Because the speakers aren't in your ear, the sound has never been loud enough for me to drown out noisy passengers on an airplane the way sound through earbuds can. And charging the wireless Bluetooth version through its USB port is inelegant: You have to open the fabric headband to get at the wiring.
But this little device causes no ear pain and is as light and as small as a sock, so there's barely any added weight or space in your luggage. Also, while SleepPhones come with an app that includes soothing sounds, you don't need it for the headphones to work. That's a relief: Some sleep-related products have apps that are awkward to use and instruction booklets that put you to sleep faster than the devices do.
Dealing with jet lag
While sleeping away from home can be challenging, when it comes to managing jet lag, things get even trickier.
A handful of new apps purport to help by adjusting your circadian rhythms. Chronoshift says it uses the travel details you input to create the ideal sleep/wake schedule for the days before your trip (free). Uplift aims to fight jet lag through a personalized regimen that involves activating acupressure points ($9.99 a year). The Illumy Sleep and Wake Mask by Glo to Sleep ($149) uses an app and colored light panels pulsing at various speeds to help encourage sleep. The mask is controlled through a smartphone app. And it's thick enough to block out light, although this also makes it a bit heavy and stiff — indeed, this side sleeper couldn't wear it. I did, however, find the slightly weighty mask with its pulsing red light somewhat comforting to begin to doze off in on my back at the end of the day. But then, I was tired at the end of the day — so perhaps it simply felt good to lie down? The company says its regimen of sunset and blue sky exposure is like the system used to help astronauts in space keep their body clocks in sync.
The Mayo Clinic recently offered some sound advice on its website, explaining that in addition to modifying your schedule before you depart, you should stick to your destination's schedule as soon as you leave home and once you arrive, stay well hydrated by drinking liquids on the flight (note: go easy on the alcohol and caffeine), and, if you're traveling fewer than eight time zones from home, use bright light to get your body on the new schedule, like morning light if you have traveled east, and evening light if you have traveled west. The division of sleep medicine at Harvard Medical School has explained how crucial light is to regulating our biological clocks.
Of course, the cheapest and least complicated way to tackle jet lag is to force yourself to stay awake when it's daytime wherever you are, then end the day tuckered out, so you'll sleep most of the night.
That, as those of us with a half-dozen apps with lapping waves and wind chimes on our phones know, is easier said than done.