It turns out there’s actually some science behind listening to bedtime stories, a ritual traditionally cherished by children around the world, to help people of all ages fall asleep.
“The reason they work is because they focus the mind,” explains Britney Blair, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist who’s board-certified in behavioral sleep medicine, and an adjunct clinical instructor at The Stanford Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine.
“One of the reasons people have difficulties falling asleep and staying asleep is because the mind gets quite active at night. You’re often distracted all day long, and when you get into bed, your mind just really goes off on you. Bedtime stories do not permit your mind to do that process.”
In other words, listening to a story helps quiet all the racing thoughts that interrupt our ability to fall asleep, simply by refocusing our minds on dreamy imagery instead.
Bedtime stories may also help stimulate the “relaxation response,” a term coined by Dr. Herbert Benson in the 1970s, which refers to a physiological shift that happens when the body is no longer in flight-or-flight mode.
“If we’re able to use a bedtime story to short-circuit that cognitive response, they’re great. One way to activate the parasympathetic nervous system is to focus the mind, like bedtime stories do, and that can signal for the systems in your body to go chill,” says Blair.
Sleep stories can be part of a healthy bedtime ritual that can ready your mind and body for rest, adds Blair. But try to end the story when your eyelids are heavy and you’re ready to drift off. Keeping the audio on once you've entered the sleep stages could “rob yourself of deep sleep,” she warns. You don’t want to suddenly wake up at 3 a.m. because the story is still going.
Where to find sleep stories for grown-ups
You'll like it if... autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) is your deal.
This meditation-focused app boasts a library of more than 200 sleep stories, ranging in tops from adventures in lush destinations to intentionally boring narrations and even whispered tales designed to trigger the tingles of peace and calm.
You'll like it if... you like a little guided help.
Another meditation app, Headspace has its own collection of bedtime stories called Sleepcasts. The 45- to 55-minute recordings start with a breathing or meditation exercise to help you wind down, followed by “an audio-guided tour of a dreamy environment.”
3. Nothing Much Happens
You'll like it if... you like repetition and slow paced stories.
In each episode of this three-year-old podcast, yoga and meditation teacher Kathryn Nicolai reads a relatively plotless story twice, the second time even more slowly than the first, to pave a smooth path to shuteye.
You'll like it if... you miss bedtime stories of your childhood.
Every week, radio producer Otis Gray revives old tales in the public domain as sleep-inducing episodes of Sleepy, the “podcast to help you snooze.” Between his warm, deep voice, and the classic stories you’re already well acquainted with (Think: “Treasure Island,” “Robin Hood,” and “The Secret Garden”), this podcast will help you drift off with ease.
5. Sleep With Me
You'll like it if... you need things to get a little interesting, but not too interesting.
Quiet those racing thoughts at night by tuning into Sleep With Me. In each episode, podcast host Drew Ackerman plays the role of “Dearest Scooter” and lulls listeners to sleep with rambling stories that take you on tons of pointless — yet imaginative — tangents.
6. Sleep Whispers
You'll like it if... you want a range of stories to choose from, depending on your mood.
If soothing, sweetly whispering voices help you get to sleep, you’ll love the podcast Sleep Whispers. The content of each roughly 30- to 40-minute-long episode ranges from guided meditations and fairy tales to encyclopedia-like narrations about pop culture, rare animals, and history, all narrated in an airy, purr-like voice.
7. Get Sleepy
You'll like it if... you want all the relaxing elements in every episode.
This podcast kicks off each episode with a meditation to help still the mind and prepare you for sleep. Then, you’ll hear a calming story, such as a Japanese folktale or history-inspired narrative, that will help you catch some Zzz’s in no time.
How bedtime stories worked for me
I felt like I had tried everything — melatonin, counting backwards, breathing techniques, even aromatherapy — to try to get to sleep. Nothing worked. Night after night was a cycle of tossing and turning before drifting off and waking up for hours in the middle of the night.
Things changed when I discovered the sleep stories feature in a meditation app. At first, I was skeptical of the app’s promise to lull listeners to sleep through audio tracks. But after a couple of weeks of particularly bad insomnia, I was desperate for a solution. I flicked on one track called “Blue Gold,” put my phone face down on my nightstand, and let the narrator (British actor Stephen Fry) lead me on a stroll through the lavender fields of Provence.
The start of the story blanketed my imagination in the relaxing scents and scenes of the purple perennials. I can’t tell you what the rest of “Blue Gold” entails, though. I fell asleep in just a few minutes and, to my amazement, didn’t wake up again until my alarm went off at 7 a.m. Could this be the insomnia antidote I had been looking for?
I repeated the experiment for a couple weeks to see if it was simply a fluke, and here’s what I found: Whether the audio track was about crossing the Atlantic aboard the Queen Mary, stargazing on Stewart Island, or hiking to a secret waterfall, these sleep stories — told in honeyed voices — consistently had me snoozing in minutes. It felt like magic.
Will bedtime stories cure your insomnia? Not permanently — especially if your insomnia has other causes than racing thoughts — but it’s worth a try. They’ve helped me fall asleep faster. And during those (now) rare occasions when I wake up in the wee hours, they help keep my mind off my worries and help me fall back asleep.
Knowing I have hundreds of bedtime stories on my phone, all just waiting to put me to sleep, offers some peace of mind that insomnia doesn’t have to dominate my life.