First came adult colouring, and now we’re seeing another childhood pastime make the leap to the big time - a good old-fashioned bedtime story. Here’s why we're increasingly listening to sleep-inducing audiobooks and apps - and why they work
Much like a cup of tea, there’s very little a good book can’t solve - a work dilemma, a culinary rut and even, (most notably for someone like me, who used to struggle to get enough shut-eye), a bad night’s sleep. Making my Kindle an essential part of my pre-sleep routine played a pivotal role in turning things around, however, making the switch from hard copy to audio could help improve the quality of my slumber that much more.
A key reason? It’s more in-tune with how the body naturally switches off. “As we sleep, our hearing sense is one of the last things to shut down,” explains Hope Bastine, resident psychologist for sleep technology brand, Simba . “It’s also the first sense to come back in the morning – which is why hearing the birds chirping is often what bring your mind to consciousness. Using audio in the evening habitually helps to systematically shut down the rest of the senses and better prepares the mind and body for that familiar sleep state.”
Swapping paper for a pair of headphones also provides a much-needed pocket of escapism if your lifestyle’s a little laptop-heavy at the moment. “Our screen-age society means our eyes are increasingly fatigued at night,” comments Hope. So if tech’s taking a toll on your eyes , reading with your ears could provide a more relaxing way to appease your inner bookworm.
How listening became the new reading
The demand for euphonious bedtime stories has seen significant growth over the last two years. Not only are sales of audiobooks skyrocketing, but more and more of us are turning to our smartphones to get our fix of aural stimulation. For example, meditation app, Calm’s , Sleep Stories have been listened to almost 68 million times since they were launched in December 2016 and attract over five million listens a month.
Designed to be grounding and calming to help body and mind gradually unwind, other literary lullabies on the app include, Blue Gold, narrated by Stephen Fry and rather surprisingly, an extract from GDPR, the EU’s new data privacy law, narrated by former BBC continuity announcer, Peter Jefferson aka “the voice of the Shipping Forecast.” Thanks to his soothing vocals, the nightly maritime weather report attracted a cult following in its heyday due to its magical ability to send overtired listeners to sleep (so much so that it garnered a reputation as the country’s unofficial national lullaby).
The secret behind their success also seems to stem from their ability to interrupt the 'Sleep Paradox.' As Dr. Steve Orma , a clinical psychologist and specialist in treating insomnia , who has written and narrated a non-fiction Sleep Story for Calm explains:
“There’s a paradox to sleep, in that it comes when you’re not trying. When you try to sleep, your mind monitors your efforts, which then keeps you awake. Instead, have the intention of relaxing and letting go. The first step in getting a good night’s sleep is being in the right mindset. If you’re tired, relaxed and ready for sleep, you will automatically fall asleep after 10 to 20 minutes. This is why doing something calming before bed will help prepare you for sleep. This can be meditation, reading (nothing too exciting) or listening to a ‘Sleep Story’, designed to help you let go and ease into a peaceful slumber.”
Swapping sight for sound can be particularly de-stressing due to another intriguing reason - its ability to conjure up positive childhood memories. “Some of our earliest formed memories involve being cradled by a warm, comforting voice reading us a much-loved bedtime story,” points out Hope. “This sacred habit marked the end of our day.”
As a result, there’s an argument to say that re-introducing an already familiar ritual into our nightly regime might be a lot easier for us to adapt to than something completely new. As Hope explains:
“Resurrecting an old habit is so much easier than creating a brand new one. If it helps, think of it like a forest path you regularly walked as a child, which eventually became overgrown as you walked it less and less. Then all of a sudden you cut it all back years later. The pathway underneath is still there. Your brain works in a similar way”.
This could be a useful to bear in mind when it comes to picking your bedtime story of choice, regardless of whether you’re reading or listening to it. “Revisiting the stories our parents told can often remind us of a simpler life,” says Hope. “Most of us were happier and carefree as children, so reconnecting with that time can remind us how to be happy when adult life can get a little overwhelming. Children’s stories can help us make sense and meaning of the complex world.”
Having said that, some fairytales can be a bit on the gruesome side, if you really think about it, so it makes sense that Calm took it upon themselves to create new, soothing takes on some of the scarier of children's tales for Sleep Stories. The collection includes Rumpelstiltskin Learns To Meditate, The Wicked Witch of the West Discovers Mindfulness and The Big Bad Wolf Learns Anger Management (... & controlled breathing). The shared theme of the new tales is the power of meditation, mindfulness and other mind tools to transform our lives. “Many characters in fairy tales are under clear stress – or else causing it to others,” says Michael Acton Smith, co-founder of Calm. “They badly need to meditate. And so we wondered what would happen if they did.”
Your bedtime story reading list
Hope’s guidelines are to look for something conducive to a relaxing state of mind with a story that unfolds and has pace and flow (i.e. not crime or horror). Something that takes you on a sensory journey with ambient sounds and soft tones in order to increase the likelihood of a deeper night’s sleep. “Hearing or reading fiction at night builds the bridge toward creative dreaming,” explains Hope. “In the dreaming part of the sleep cycle, REM, we dream in pictures, not in words. So, anything we can do to switch on the imaginal centres of our brain before bed is a sure-fire way of preparing the mind for deep sleep.” This results in the analytically driven language centre of the brain closing down and makes space for the more peaceful alpha brainwave needed for better quality slumber.
As for reading inspo, a recent study of 2000 adults* revealed that childhood classic The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis was the children’s book grown-ups would most like to re-read. Others in the top 10 included:
The Secret Garden
The Railway Children
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Wind in the Willows
The Lord of the Rings
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
Audio chapters of Wind in The Willows, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and other children’s classics can be found in the Calm app’s Sleep Stories section. If you’re not a member, you can sign up to their 7-day free trial here. There's also musical, ASMR and non-fiction playlists available too.
Also check out Audible, the audiobook giant, which offers a sizeable 30-day free trial (and a free book order) and also features Sleep Timer functionality to avoid the fallout of falling asleep and missing large chunks of your book. I wouldn’t worry if you do drop off though. Usually the fact that a story would send you to sleep would be a bad thing. However, in this case, it’s the ultimate compliment.
*Independent research of 2000 UK adults commissioned by sleep technology brand, Simba and carried out by One Poll.