Around 10 p.m., Lindsay Colford settles into bed listening to the dulcet drawl of Matthew McConaughey, who is about to take her on an audio journey through the cosmos until she falls asleep.
Some nights, the sound of Harry Styles delicately reciting a bedtime poem echoes off the walls. And on other nights, Regé-Jean Page calmly narrates a story about an English prince.
Colford, an executive assistant from Tinton Falls, New Jersey, is not alone. Thousands of other adults are falling asleep to storytellers, both famous and not. In our never-ending quest to get a good night’s sleep, bedtime stories are the latest weapon in the arsenal.
No longer just for children, bedtime stories are a key part of many mindfulness and meditation apps, which boomed in popularity throughout the pandemic. It doesn’t end there. The internet is rife with bedtime stories for adults, and there are plenty of tailored sleep story podcasts, such as “Get Sleepy” and “Sleep With Me.” There’s a reason adults are drawn to bedtime stories, and it goes beyond whimsy and nostalgia.
“A bedtime story works by detracting the mind from self-sabotaging thoughts and worries, which allows the body’s adrenaline to come down so the brain can transition into the sleep state,” said Dr. Christine Won, associate professor of medicine at Yale School of Medicine and medical director of Yale Center for Sleep Medicine. “A story, more so than music or background noises, is more likely to force the stubborn mind’s attention away from whatever is causing emotional distress.”
“Bedtime stories help me zone out. Sometimes I don’t even remember going to sleep,” said Colford, who chooses her stories from the Calm app based on the narrator’s voice and a sense of familiarity.
Paul Barrett, a consultant in Denver, started listening to bedtime stories early in the pandemic to try out something new. As a frequent business traveler, Barrett used the Breethe app to help him relax in different time zones. Seeing new bedtime stories pop up in the library piqued his interest.
“I started with the classics. I remember Jane Eyre being like Ambien in high school,” he joked. “After not traveling for so long, I’ve been listening to destination-related stories.”
Across the board, travel stories tend to be the most popular — especially train journeys. Their descriptive detail, sense of place, existence in the present moment and occasional educational components help many listeners get out of their heads. And since the pandemic started, travel bedtime stories have been appeasing the FOMO in some people.
The Calm app has more than 200 options (called “Sleep Stories”), which have been listened to over 450 million times, according to the company. The Breethe app has more than 100 stories in its catalog and is introducing one new bedtime story a week to keep up with demand. For Hatch, a customizable sleep system with an accompanying app, bedtime stories are starting to outperform their typical sleep content, including guided meditations and soundscapes.
That doesn’t mean they work for everyone, however.
“I found that listening to sleep stories was very distracting instead of calming,” said Marian Alaya, from Long Valley, New Jersey. Now, she prefers white noise or guided meditations.
“When the bedtime stories were introduced, I decided to try something different, and I’m glad I did. I love how the stories help me to visualize all of the details — I find it very relaxing,” said Nancy Chernoff, a small business owner from Montreal. Without the comfort of her dog one night, Chernoff turned to “Fido’s Journey to His Fur-ever Home,” a story on Breethe about a rescue dog.
“The stories engage my mind enough that I can visualize the details of the story rather than focusing on other, more stressful thoughts that so often pop up at bedtime,” said Chernoff, who also enjoys the travel stories because of their rich detail.
Dr. Kelly Goldman, a radiation oncologist from El Segundo, California, noticed that during her nightly bedtime story ritual with her son, she would also grow tired. Eventually, she wondered if they’d work on her, too.
“Early in the pandemic was a really stressful time for me at work. I’m a doctor in a radiation oncology center with cancer patients who are at real risk of getting very sick with COVID,” Goldman said. She found some brief peace through quiet bedtime stories with flowery language “where nothing really happens.”
“They feel cozy,” she said. “I feel a little bit like a kid again.”
These apps and podcasts offer a wide variety of bedtime stories — which is good, because experts agree there is no one size fits all when it comes to sleep. There are whispered stories for auto sensory meridian response lovers; retellings of the classics; travel journeys; original stories centered around a theme, like holidays; a whole category called “boring,” with mundane-by-design recitations of things like the art of bread making; lyrical poems; and stories recited by recognizable celebrity voices.
It may seem simple, but there’s a fine art to creating the perfect bedtime story for grown-ups.
For starters, it has to be engaging but not overstimulating. In Calm’s “A Very Proper Tea Party,” narrated by Dame Mary Berry, the height of the action is a cat dozing off in an English garden after a tea party. The characters can’t be too complex. There should be detail (often very descriptive detail) that envelops the listener in the scene and keeps the mind from wandering. The ideal length is between 15 and 30 minutes. Plus, there’s the perfect ambient background music.
Then, of course, there’s the voice. The narrator can make or break a story. Cadence, tone and energy matter. Listeners like to repeat bedtime stories, so there has to be a perceived connection and an element of dependability, which can be hard to quantify. This is why many of the classics do so well. When Breethe introduced a retelling of “Cinderella,” it became their highest-performing track in October, they said. Hatch also prioritized nostalgia in its library, commissioning titles like “The Velveteen Rabbit” and “Peter Pan.”
That intangible trustworthiness sometimes comes in the form of celebrity narrators on Calm. LeVar Burton, of “Reading Rainbow” fame, takes listeners on a “Journey to the Stars.” Lucy Liu invites them to the “Festival of the First Moon.” Cillian Murphy talks about “Crossing Ireland by Train.” Chiké Okonkwo recites Shakespeare’s sonnets. LeBron James is “King of the Sleeping City.”
Rebecca Robbins, associate scientist at the Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders at Brigham & Women’s Hospital and an instructor at Harvard Medical School, said bedtime stories for adults make perfect sense.
“Children are among the most well-rested in our society,” she said. “It is easy to think that we, as adults, are somehow immune or too mature for these habits. But the truth is we could all benefit from applying the techniques we use with kids.”