Once upon a time … bedtime stories were just for kids

Colford, 39, an executive assistant from Tinton Falls,
New Jersey, is not alone. Thousands of other adults are sleeping with
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 plenty of tailored sleep story podcasts, like
“Get Sleepy” and “Sleep With Me,” exist. 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 59-year-old consultant in Denver,
started listening to bedtime stories early in the pandemic to try out something
new. As a frequent business traveller, 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.

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“I started with the classics. I remember Jane Eyre
being like Ambien in high school,” he joked. “After not travelling 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 the occasional educational components help
many listeners get out of their heads. 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 over 100 stories in its catalogue and is
introducing one new bedtime story a week to keep up with demand. For Hatch, a
customisable sleep system with an accompanying app, bedtime stories are
starting to outperform their typical sleep content, like guided meditations and

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, 39, 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 60-year-old 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.

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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 centre 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 centred around a theme, like holiday; a whole category called “boring,”
with mundane-by-design recitations of things like the art of bread making;
lyrical poems; and stories recited by recognisable 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.

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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
prioritised 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.”

© 2022 The New York Times Company

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