Gauge Your Sleep Health with Low, Mid, and High Tech Approaches

Baby sleeping
Elena Litsova Photography/Moment/Getty Images.

Good sleep is a blessing that we take for granted until we don't have it. There is no magic number for the optimal amount of sleep, but our sleep requirements generally decrease as we get older. Toddlers need about 11 to 12 hours of sleep per night, while most adults do well with 7 to 8 hours. But sleep needs can vary greatly from person to person. Some adults seem to function well with 6 hours of sleep every night, while others need 9 hours.

 Here are a few ways for evaluating the quantity and quality of your sleep. 

Low tech

You don't need special equipment to determine if you're getting a good night's sleep. A general rule of thumb is that if you wake up spontaneously without an alarm clock and feel refreshed, then you probably had a good night's sleep. The key is "feel refreshed." If you feel tired and groggy for a long time after you wake up, then it wasn't a good night's sleep, no matter how many hours you spent in bed.

You can get a better idea of your sleep health by answering a set of questions called the Epworth Sleepiness Scale (ESS). The scale describes 8 situations which might make you fall asleep, such as watching TV or lying down to rest in the afternoon. By indicating the likelihood of dozing off in those situations (from a scale of 0 to 3), and computing the total score, you can gauge your overall sleepiness. Try an online version of the ESS, but don't look up the normal range beforehand, because that information might influence your answers.


Mid tech

The combination of an app plus the smartphone's sensors can capture information about your sleep habits. For example, the Sleep Cycle Alarm Clock app uses the phone's accelerometer, with the phone placed under your mattress, to monitor the depth of your sleep. The manufacturer claims that the app wakes you up within a 30 minute window of a light sleep phase.

 Some models of activity trackers like the Jawbone UP and Fitbit also track sleep.

While apps and wrist-worn activity trackers can be useful establishing broad trends for people who generally sleep well, they are not 100% accurate for tracking sleep. The quality and depth of sleep does not always correlate with movement, especially for people with sleep disorders. 

High tech

The quality and depth of sleep can be affected by disorders like obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). People with OSA stop breathing when they are asleep, and repeatedly wake up in order to resume breathing. This can happen hundreds of times a night so that they don't achieve restful sleep. People with significant OSA can feel very tired during the daytime. 

In the 50 to 70 year old age group, approximately 17% of men and 9% of women in the U.S. have OSA. Even more concerning is that more than 80% of adults with OSA have not yet been diagnosed. Major risk factors for OSA include obesity, large neck size, male gender, older age, and family history of OSA.

If your health care provider believes that your risk for OSA is sufficiently high, you may be referred for an overnight polysomnography, or sleep study, in a dedicated sleep lab. During the study, sensors will be attached to monitor breathing, oxygen levels, brain waves, eye movement, muscle movement, heart rhythm, and snoring activity as you sleep. For some individuals, a more limited sleep study can be done at home with portable equipment. 

[Mention of a commercial product or service does not constitute an endorsement.] 


Peppard PE et al. Increased Prevalence of Sleep-Disordered Breathing in Adults. Am J Epidemiol 2013;177(9):1006-1014.

Young T et al. Estimation of the clinically diagnosed proportion of sleep apnea
syndrome in middle-aged men and women. Sleep 1997;20(9):705-706.

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Brain Basics: Understanding Sleep. Accessed on January 31, 2015.

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