How “Adult Bedtime Stories” Became an Unlikely Insomnia Cure

You've tried everything else. Why not go back to your roots?

March 14, 2022 6:45 am
How “Adult Bedtime Stories” Became an Unlikely Insomnia Cure
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Last winter, I found myself unable to fall asleep during the first night of a ski weekend with friends. The usual stuff had me wired: it had been a long drive to the mountain, we were planning to be up super early, I’d probably eaten too much for dinner. But the most distracting reason was a squeaky monologue from Dobby the house elf, emanating from the room just next to me.

My friend confessed the next day that he’d spent the better part of a year following asleep to Harry Potter audiobooks. In late spring of 2020, J.K. Rowling made the franchise’s first book free to stream on Audible, as a quarantine peace offering of sorts. My ski mate started listening to Sorcerer’s Stone before heading to sleep, and he discovered that it actually made for an excellent insomnia cure; he couldn’t spend more than 10 minutes at Hogwarts without falling asleep. So he bought the rest and finished the entire series in a matter of months. Once he was through, he simply went back to the beginning.

He’s not alone. In recent years, buoyed by ever-expanding streaming libraries and meditation apps, a general exhaustion with typical (too often medicinal) soporifics and a period of time that left people more attuned to their need for quality sleep than ever before, adult bedtime stories have found eager bedfellows.

Dr. Loren Olson, a psychiatrist and award-winning author, says he’s always struggled with falling asleep. For years, he found solace in a late-night snack (either ice cream or milk and peanut butter), but that routine only compounded another issue: his weight gain. He desperately needed an alternative. “Before I went to bed,” Dr. Olson says, “I feared that I wouldn’t be able to fall asleep. It almost always became a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

In the end, Audible proved his savior. “Every night now, I listen to a book on Audible,” he says. “I set the timer to either go off in 30 minutes or at the end of a chapter. I am careful about the books I select. I usually select novels that are interesting but light enough that I don’t have to listen for detail. Instead of writing and re-writing my to-do list for the next day, my mind focuses on the book. Everything else is cleared from my mind.”

But what’s so effective about listening to a story before bed, anyway? And why is it any better than listening to the white noises available on smart alarm clocks, or putting on soothing music, or skipping straight to the pharmaceutical guarantee and popping milligrams of melatonin or diphenhydramine? Besides, isn’t it unbecoming for an adult to need stories before bed? Shouldn’t that solution be reserved for overactive children?

It’s important to remember that for those who suffer from chronic or acute insomnia, the period before sleep is often hormonal warfare. Think: too much cortisol (your bed is the last place your body should be preparing for “fight or flight”), too little melatonin (made worse by our collective addiction too screens) and uncharacteristic fluctuations throughout a number of core organs. Unfortunately, bad sleep typically discourages good sleep, as the body is always engaged in a game of wake-cycle catchup. This fact isn’t lost on the brain, which has a tendency to assume its most irrational state at the exact moment you’re begging for it to calm down.

The next step, though, is committing to some sort of noise to aid you in the process. You could rely on the whirs of machines close to the bed: ceiling fans, air purifiers, a cube that crashes waves on repeat. Or you could seek out a bit more oomph; there are thousands of mixes online dedicated to inducing “deep sleep.” These are usually soft piano arrangements, the sort of stuff yoga instructors put on at the end of sessions, when they gently ask you to imagine yourself on a beach.

But sometimes, it’s next to impossible to imagine yourself on a beach. It’s easier to imagine yourself screwing up at work, or letting down a friend, or getting angry at the news. Which is when it really helps to imagine someone else on a beach. Bedtime stories ease the burden of a racing mind. They relieve you of your duties as protagonist for the evening. Noise can be nice and distracting, but for many, it isn’t nearly as effective as zeroing on dialogue and (light) action. In the early years after Calm released a slate of 23 recordings, “spanning travel writing, sport and fairy-tales” — which included vocal acting legends like Stephen Fry, in addition to voguish recruits like Harry Styles and Matthew McConaughey — the app counted 250 million downloads. They’d launched the initiative after noticing that users were most likely to seek out guided meditations around 10:30 p.m., and doubled down on such “sleep stories,” adding another 180 in four years. These days, the content library updates weekly.

It faces some robust competition, though. From apps like Breethe, Sleep With Me, Get Sleepy and Hatch, which is a corresponding service for the popular all-in-one alarm clock. These programs generally stream on Spotify and Apple Podcasts, and sometimes from their own websites, as is the case with Nothing Much Happens, a show with the tagline “bedtime stories for grown-ups,” which is written and read by Michigan-based creator Kathryn Nicolai. Her episodes are a little over 30 minutes long, and take place in the town of Nothing Much. What’s the conceit? She sums it up atthe beginning of each episode: “Nothing much happens, you feel good and then you fall asleep.”

It’s difficult to communicate exactly what Nicolai’s stories are about, because it’s so difficult to stay awake through the end of one. In “The Solarium,” uploaded this past January, Nicolai tells a story about a day in winter where the sun peaks out for a day. There are specifics throughout, and they’re well-written and beautifully read, but they’re almost immaterial. As a medium, adult bedtime stories look to communicate just enough. They have to straddle a delicate line between boring and redolent; if they don’t say anything of interest, you may travel back to your muddled brain, and if they’re too riveting, you may force yourself to stay up, in anticipation of what happens next. So: nothing much happens. And nothing much matters. If you want to hear the conclusion the next night, you may return. If you don’t you’ll be just fine.

Of course, as the Audible faithful suggest (those willing to listen to any sort of fiction before bed), not everyone wants a 2020s-crafted adult bedtime story. Many are happy to listen to a reliable novel or, in some cases, the exact bedtime stories they heard as children. Andy Fraser, an online guitar expert, prefers a service called Sleepiest, which he says has the best selection of stories. He searches for recognizable classics, like Robin Hood, or Sherlock Holmes. “I like the fact that their stories feature characters I know and can already relate to, or I’m confident I would like,” he says.

Calm, Breethe and Hatch have commissioned voice actors to retell classic fairy tales, which often become some of their most bankable sleep stories. But they’ve also taken pains to write new stories with titles, cadences and moral finales reminiscent of the parables and tall tales of yore. On Calm, you can listen to Peter Pan and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. But you can also sample fledgling yarns like “The Land of Nod” and “Humphrey in London.” Perhaps the success of the old stories, and those modeled on them, shouldn’t be too surprising. That’s where a bedtime story morphs from a welcome distraction to an extra blanket. It’s comes gift-wrapped in nostalgia, safety, warmth. It brings you back to however nice it felt to fall asleep this way as a child.

Let’s be clear: there is zero shame in falling asleep, and staying asleep, like a child. Not every kid under the age of 10 may get his or her requisite nine to 12 hours of sleep a night. But the mere fact that America’s medical clinics unilaterally agree that that’s a healthy target shows our appreciation for sleep at a young age. It is absolutely critical for physical growth and healing, cognitive function, social development, appetite… you name it. That’s why we send kids to bed early — and sometimes read them a bedtime story to make sure they actually hit the hay.

Adults may not require as much rest, but the damages of restlessness are significant regardless of age. Perhaps it’s time we learn to afford our own sleep the same amount of care that we reserve for the tykes’. That might mean adopting some of the best practices that go on in your kid’s room. Christina Yen, a pharmacist, never planned to start listening to bedtime stories for herself, but naturally adopted the practice after playing a Peppa Pig bedtime story on repeat for her toddlers every single night for a month.

“My husband and I fall asleep with our kids within 15 minutes each night,” she says. “I think it works because it’s soothing and not excitable. For example, Peppa’s story is literally about the history of concrete. But my kids absolutely love it because it’s in Daddy Pig’s voice. On nights we don’t use it with the kids, my husband and I listen to some of the meditations on the Calm app which puts us to sleep just as quickly. I love that it forces us to break out of scrolling through social media endlessly before bed and instead to something more mindful and comforting.”

There’s a chance, assuming you sleep with a partner, that a bedtime story strategy won’t be welcome. You could try sleeping in your AirPods, or buying a semi-shitty “Bluetooth eye mask” online, but I’d recommend taking a couple nights to truly try bedtime stories on your own (while you’re on a trip, or they’re on a trip, or just schlep it on the couch for a night), to confirm that you’re into it, then drop a couple hundred bucks on the Bose II Sleepbuds, which we gave a very positive review to some months back. If your partner’s game, meanwhile, or falls asleep so effortlessly they could care less, then proceed full steam ahead.

Ultimately, there probably isn’t a single insomnia cure out there. (The closest we’ve got is called whisky, and that’s no way to live out your days.) There are, however, adjustments that can be made on a nightly basis, to lower your heart rate and up your chances of an early ticket to dreamland. Bedtime stories are one such adjustment. Even if the concept of insomnia is blissfully out of your purview, consider giving them a whirl: study after study has confirmed that those who consume fiction are more empathetic than others. At the very least, you could eliminate the bags under your eyes. But you could stumble into becoming a better person, too.

That’s the endgame here. At a time of day when you’ve had enough you for a lifetime, let a story pull yourself out of yourself. Let it shine the searchlight on someone else’s story, no matter how trifling, no matter how little happens and no how much Dobby you have to listen to along the way.

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