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Can This Light Really Help You Wake Up? I Tried It

I tried a few of the wake-up lights on the market. Here's what I discovered.

I’m a chronic snoozer. Unless there’s something I absolutely need to get out of bed for—like a barking dog, or (in the before times) a plane to catch, I can’t help but hit the snooze button when my alarm goes off. And if I’ve hit it once then I’ve hit it multiple times and before you know it, 45 minutes have gone by before I’ve convinced myself to get out of bed. Which, frankly, isn’t great since those 45 minutes are the only time during the day I can squeeze in some exercise or a few quiet minutes to myself before my three kids get up and we start the school/work routine (whatever that might look like these days). I always regret not getting out of bed sooner. 

Looking for ways to help convince myself to get moving, especially on these dark winter pandemic mornings when we no longer have to walk to school (we’re doing virtual learning for at least another month where I live) and no one is commuting to work, I decided to try a few of the wake-up lights on the market. Both the Phillips SmartSleep and Wake-Up Light and the Casper Glow Light use a soft light that gradually gets brighter, like an artificial dawn, to wake you up gently. I also checked in with Michael Antle, a circadian rhythm expert at the Hotchkiss Brain Institute at the University of Calgary to see what science says about these types of wake-up lights. Here’s what I discovered:

How do these lights work?

The idea behind these lights is they wake you up naturally, rather than jolting you out of sleep with a blaring alarm. “Your circadian clock, and the times when you go to bed and wake up, is synchronized to your environment. With these lights, you’ve started that artificial dawn earlier, and that would be the signal to your circadian clock,” explains Antle. In other words, if you don’t have natural light waking you up—whether that’s because you get up before sunrise or you sleep with blackout curtains—an artificial light is a good substitute. I’m happy to report both lights did succeed in waking me up, and it was definitely a more gentle awakening than I’m used to.

Do they actually wake you up?

I would almost argue the wake-up was too gentle, in fact. With the Casper light, which you can program using an app on your phone to gradually get brighter over 30 minutes until the time you want to wake up, it was too easy for me to drift back off to sleep after I’d been aroused. I definitely wouldn’t count on it to get me up for work or to catch a flight. The Phillips light, on the other hand, has an optional sound alarm that comes on after the 30-minute gradual brightening. The alarm can be nature sounds, soft music or FM radio (the sound also starts softly and gets louder to ensure a gentle wakeup). This is a better choice for me.

Two images of the wake-up light: one of the light to the side, and the other of the light facing forward.

(Photo: Philips)

Sleep matters

I found with both lights even though I was being woken up gently, I still needed to convince myself to get out of bed. The issue here likely isn’t the WAY I’m waking up, but rather what I’m doing at the other end of the day. “It’s not going to cure lack of sleep,” says Antle. Point taken. If I want to feel well-rested in the morning I’ll have to start going to bed earlier. “If you’re waking up at 5 a.m. you should be tucking yourself in at 9:30 or 10 at night so you get enough sleep,” he explains. While I’m not trying to get out of bed that early, I have been aiming for 6 a.m., which means I probably need to get to bed about an hour earlier than I have been. (I’ve been getting out of bed closer to 6:45 or 7 when it’s not my turn to walk the dog.) Antle adds that just using the clock once or twice probably won’t make too much of a difference to your wake-up routine. But if I us it consistently, with a consistent bedtime, my body should adjust to the earlier wake up time and it will feel natural to get up at that time. Antle suggests shift workers who regularly have to get up before dawn could really benefit from this type of light. “It will be one of the cues that will help you get your circadian clock on the right cycle for your life.” This means instead of fighting with yourself to get out of bed, you’ll wake up feeling refreshed and ready to go.

Sweet dreams

Speaking of getting to bed on time—both lights have a wind-down option. On the Casper Glow Light it’s a 15-to-90 minute slow dim until the light goes completely out. The Phillips SmartSleep and Wake-Up Light simulates a sunset to gradually put you to sleep and even offers calming breathing exercises if that’s your thing. While I don’t actually have difficulty falling asleep, I found the wind-down options surprisingly calming—they made me want to put down my phone and actually enjoy the process of falling asleep. My 10-year-old, who often comes out of his room after 20 to 30 minutes unable to fall asleep, tried the sunset feature on the Phillips light and it really helped him settle. In the end, the fall-sleep feature may actually be the more useful one for me. Now I just need to convince myself to get in bed at a reasonable time.

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