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 may work — like the SkyRest travel pillow that has won over a number of 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 — a reluctant authority on the subject as I don’t sleep well even in my own bed — 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, ear plugs 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 your brain wave patterns to help you relax.
Neurophysiological claims aside, the app was designed for travelers and has some useful features: You can adjust the length of each track based on travel time (up to 10 hours) and listen while your iPhone is in Airplane Mode (although be sure to download tracks before your flight, when you have an Internet connection). If in fact your brain waves are lulled into submission, you can choose how you want the spell to be broken: chimes, bells, harp, gong, xylophone or silence.
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, so you can try it yourself. It comes with three sounds (rainy day, beach sleep and desert wind), and for 99 cents you can buy additional sets of three.
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).
Eye masks have a lousy reputation. In film and television they’re the unnecessary accouterments of indulgent characters ( 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 overseas swears by the Dream Essentials brand. Its “sweet dreams” contoured sleep mask with earplugs and a pouch is $9.95 on Dreamessentials.com and Amazon.com, 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 rib cage, which subsequently made me think about Halloween candy. That was all right. But before long I was wondering, “Is this what it feels like to be buried alive?”
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. Tug the drawstrings and the pillow promises “cocoonification.” Hoodiepillow.com.
If I like it, I’ll be the one in black.