“Well, hello there. Tonight I’ll be reading a special sleep story called ‘Wonder.’ Before we begin, as you settle in under the covers, with your head easing into the pillow, and your body sinking into the mattress, I’d like you to let your mind drift with me for just a minute. Let’s ask the question: How often do we ponder the depth of the present moment?”
Now go back and read that paragraph again, and this time, imagine Matthew McConaughey reciting each word… slowly… smoothly… in his signature Southern drawl. Feeling relaxed and languorous yet?
Yeah, us too.
Meditation apps are helping put us to bed
According to a CDC report, meditation practitioners tripled in America between 2012 and 2017. And for those experiencing insomnia or trouble falling asleep, studies suggest that meditation and meditation apps can help you doze off more quickly and improve the quality of your sleep.
When it comes to going beyond getting you into a place of Zen to also shepherding you into that often-elusive state of sleep, Calm and Headspace stand out in a rapidly expanding industry. Both apps feature sections devoted entirely to sleep. The soothing content these apps offer to inspire rest includes sleep-focused meditations, nature sounds, sleep music, and Sleepcasts (Headspace) and Sleep Stories (Calm) which are essentially “bedtime stories” designed to help adults nod off.
McConaughey — along with Kelly Rowland, Lucy Liu, Nick Offerman, Harry Styles, and Laura Dern—are among the many buttery-voiced narrators in the Calm app who read these sleep stories.
Though they differ in terms of interface style, approach, and specific features offered, both of these apps celebrate not just the necessity but also the beauty of sleep. They take a stand against the, frankly, tired old mantra of “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” understanding that sleep is essential to our overall wellness and deserves to be celebrated and prioritized now.
Calm: Offerings, user experience, and review
Their mission: Billing itself as the No. 1 app for meditation, sleep, and relaxation, Calm aims to “make the world a happier and healthier place, devoted to helping you live mindfully, sleep better and breathe deeper.”
What it offers: A peaceful and soothing experience from the moment you log in, Calm begins playing relaxing nature sounds including a babbling river and bird calls. It offers hundreds of two- to 35-minute podcasts that will guide you through a variety of meditations, broken down by what you’re hoping to achieve (lowering anxiety, managing stress, improving self-care, or boosting self-esteem, to name just a few).
New to mindfulness and meditation? You can start with “The Daily Calm” (a 10-minute meditation) or perhaps begin the app’s “7 Days of Calm,” in which a soothing female voice guides you through ten minutes of breathing and awareness exercises before inviting you to come back again tomorrow for your next mindfulness session.
There’s plenty for more experienced meditators to enjoy, as well, from morning stretching and evening wind down exercises and a vast library of relaxing music to "masterclasses" that empower users to spend an hour focusing on important subjects, such as The Power of Rest, Mindful Eating, and Breaking a Bad Habit. You can work on your mental fitness and athletic performance with none other than LeBron James as your coach in the “Train Your Mind” course.
Who’s behind it: Internet entrepreneurs Alex Tew and Michael Acton Smith (once described as a "rock star version of Willy Wonka") co-founded the software company in 2012. Meditation guru Tamara Levitt is the company’s “Head of Mindfulness”—as well as the soothing female voice we mentioned above.
The cost: The app is free to download, though the majority of features won’t be accessible until you set up a free trial. This seven-day test run includes unguided sessions, a few guided sessions, and tracking features. After the trial, you’ll have the option to subscribe for $69.99 a year, which gives you unlimited access to all premium content. A Calm for Life subscription of $399.99 gets you access to the app’s features for, you guessed it, forever.
The design/interface: If you have a thing for tranquil outdoor scenes and inspirational quotes, you’ll feel right at home on Calm.
Standout sleep features: Even adults could use a good bedtime story, right? Calm welcomes users to get lost in their Sleep Stories: “Soothing bedtime tales designed to help settle your busy mind and relax your body so that you can drift off to sleep with ease.” The majority of these Sleep Stories are precisely that: stories vs. meditative exercises. Narrators with oh-so-slow, lull-you-to-slumber voices describe scenes from nature or retell short bedtime stories. You’ll recognize a number of famous faces (and voices) in the Sleep Stories library, from Lucy Liu to Nick Offerman to Bob Ross.
What if you wake up at 3 a.m. and you’re struggling to get back to sleep? According to Calm, “It’s natural to wake up during the night. The key is to invite some equanimity around the fact that you are awake.” So, for those all-too-familiar nights, Calm offers “Gently Back to Sleep,” a relaxing meditation that Tamara Levitt guides. Though the session is 45 minutes long, thanks to her velvety, almost-a-whisper voice, it’s hard to imagine that anyone would make it past the 10-minute mark before naturally drifting back into dreamland.
In addition to Sleep Stories, Gently Back to Sleep exercises and sleep soundscapes (music designed to help you “let go of the day and find deep rest”), the app also includes a handful of ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) sessions. This method of sleep aid relies on the tingly feeling some people experience in response to certain sounds.
What users say: An Editors’ Choice in the app store, Calm has no shortage of glowing reviews:
- 4.8 out of 5 stars, based on 843,000+ ratings
- “Since I’ve been listening to the Sleep Stories, I’ve been sleeping so much more soundly. The stories are soothing and just boring enough to lull you to sleep. Worth the cost to sleep well without medication.” – Hibiscus19
- “It has always been a battle to put my 8-year-old stepdaughter to sleep each night. I played the first [Sleep Story] for kids and just like that, she was out within 7 minutes! Now we use it every night when it’s bedtime and she is out like a light.” – jacattackXx
What critics say:
- Calm was named 2017’s best iPhone app of the year. -- Apple
- “In a world ruled by content, Calm offers a kind of anti-content. Half of the programming is stuff designed to fall asleep to: If it’s working, you don’t hear it. I gladly pay to listen to the exact same thing night after night.” – “The App That Tucks Me In at Night,” the New York Times
- “Calm is a portal to peace of mind.” – “The Best Meditation Apps to Help With Anxiety,” Oprah Magazine
Headspace: Offerings, design experience, and reviews
Its mission: With millions of users in more than 190 countries, Headspace aims to “improve the health and happiness of the world.”
What it offers: Providing a comprehensive guide to mindfulness and meditation, the app introduces fundamental techniques in its free basics course. With a subscription, users gain access to a library of more than 2,000 guided meditations.
Headspace approaches meditation in a way that most users will find refreshing, explaining that, “You’re not trying to turn off your thoughts or feelings. You’re learning to observe them without judgment. And eventually, you may start to better understand them as well.”
The app organizes its content by themes: Start your morning on a mindful note with “The Wake Up,” which provides inspiring, bite-sized stories and videos. Then, get both your mind and body revving with Move Mode’s mini-workouts, mindful cardio runs, and rest-day meditations. Listen to “Mindful Moments” to keep you present throughout your day. And, finally, end your day with Sleepcasts, Headspace’s version of bedtime stories. Users can also access “SOS” sessions to help with heightened moments of panic, anxiety, or stress; in addition, there are "packs," which are multi-day courses that have themes like kindness, creativity, and self-esteem.
Who’s behind it: A former Buddhist monk and renowned mindfulness expert, Andy Puddicombe is “the voice of all things Headspace.” Since launching Headspace in 2010, Puddicombe is “doing for meditation what someone like Jamie Oliver has done for food”—in other words making it approachable and thoroughly enticing for the masses.
The cost: After a two-week free trial, users can opt for a $12.99 monthly rate or a $69.99 annual subscription.
The design/interface: There’s no mistaking Headspace’s signature look and feel. Quirky animations and illustrations in pastel tones help create a vibe that feels friendly, streamlined, and modern. There’s a tidy but playful sensibility that makes the topic of meditation feel accessible and even fun—to newbies and pros, alike.
Standout sleep features: Headspace divides its sleep aids into a handful of categories, the most distinctive of which is Sleepcasts. These dreamy stories help slow down the mind, transporting you to “a different sleepy environment, to add a little happily-ever-after to your bedtime routine.” Averaging about 50 minutes, the narrators describe scenes including a crackling campfire in the desert, a slow-moving train, and a peaceful sanctuary up in the trees. Even the busiest of brains will find themselves slowing down toward slumber after 10 minutes of hearing Puddicombe’s soothing, pleasantly British accented narration.
The next feature, Wind Downs, is a collection of guided meditations that help users power down their minds via three-minute breathing techniques. The option to pick a male or female narrator is seemingly simple but surprisingly useful, allowing individuals to personalize the experience based on the type of voice that is most calming to them.
Sleep Soundscapes offer more sleep music than even the most restless among us could ever get through—literally hours-upon-hours of nature sounds, overlapping chords, and spacey harmonies that set the mood for sleep.
The fourth component, Nighttime SOS, offers 10-minute, middle-of-the-night meditations for when you startle from a nightmare or awake suddenly thanks to unresolved work stress or other worries.
In addition, Headspace subscribers have access to a 30-day sleep course that aims to train the mind for long-term positive change. According to the app, this exclusive program “isn’t designed to send you to sleep in the moment; it’s designed to change your relationship with sleep. By training the mind in a specific way—day by day, for a month—you gradually create an environment conducive to a good night’s rest.”
One other sleep-related feature that sets Headspace apart is its bedtime alarm, which gives users a subtle nudge that it’s time to settle into their wind-down routines. (We set an alarm to wake up each morning, so why wouldn’t we have an alarm that alerts us it’s time to sleep?)
What users say: Like Calm, Headspace is an Editors’ Choice in the app store, and subscribers aren’t shy in singing its praises:
- 4.9 out of 5 stars, based on 656,000+ ratings
- “I have tried many sleep apps and meditation videos. I can’t sleep very well, and I finally decided to get this app. It was the best decision I could have made. I haven’t slept this well in years and it is all thanks to Headspace.” – siik&9”/?:
- “Using this app to meditate every morning and before I go to bed has been so helpful in increasing my mindfulness and my ability to cope with anxiety and panic attacks.” -- Willow Diamond
What critics say:
- “After talking to meditation experts from the UCLA Mindfulness Awareness Research Center and the UMass Center for Mindfulness, researching a dozen apps, and testing five, we think that Headspace offers the best experience, with excellent guided courses and great short meditations for people on the go.” – The Best Meditation Apps, Wirecutter
- “I've used a meditation app loved by Wall Streeters and Olympic athletes daily for the past 8 months, and now I can't imagine my life without it.” – Business Insider
Calm vs. Headspace: The bottom line
The consensus among both users and critics is that both apps are (more than) worth the download and the cost of subscription for those looking to improve daily mindfulness and achieve more restorative sleep each night.
For anyone new to the practice of meditation, Headspace may be more helpful, as its approach is considered more streamlined and accessible for beginners. For those who are already familiar with mindfulness, Calm could be a great choice, as it offers the widest range of meditations, calming music, and sleep features. Calm simply falls a bit short when it comes to teaching the basics of meditation, which Headspace does in-depth.
If you’re cozying up to a meditation app or two, but you’re not entirely certain which to choose, we have some pretty simple advice: It’s officially OK to “sleep around.” Take advantage of the free trials offered and test out Calm for several nights before giving Headspace a spin the following week.
Remember, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to meditation — and the same can be said for meditation apps. Just as you might head to your favorite gym or yoga studio and book classes with several instructors before finding your favorites, you’ll want to select a sleep meditation app that blends naturally with your personality and preferences.