From wearable sleep trackers and anti-snore pillows to digital dream monitors – there have never been more ways to help troubled sleepers drift off. But the latest trend among the millions of insomniac Britons might seem surprising in our digital age: bedtime stories for ‘stressed out’ adults
Of course, there is a high-tech element – as these sleep stories are listened to via a smartphone app, rather than read.
They feature classic fantastical narratives from mystical tales about a talking bear to an adapted version of the 1908 novel Wind In The Willows.
PR executive Natalie Trice from Devon, pictured with her sons Eddie and Lucas, is a big fan of sleep apps. She said: ‘The calming voice relaxes me and shifts my focus away from everything going on in my head’
But they’re hardly thrilling because within minutes the storylines become dull, the idea being that the slow-paced, dulcet tones of the narrator will induce sleepiness in the listener.
One of these apps has seen a six-fold rise in story downloads in just two years – from four million to 25 million in the UK alone. Another, Sleep With Me, sees 1.3 million tales downloaded every month.
There’s been celebrity interest too. Joanna Lumley and Stephen Fry signed up as narrators, while pop star Harry Styles has backed another app.
One devotee is 45-year-old Natalie Trice, a busy PR executive from Devon.
‘The calming voice relaxes me and shifts my focus away from everything going on in my head,’ she says.
‘I’ve tried herbal pills, hot drinks, hot baths and going downstairs to watch Emmerdale repeats at 3am. But bedtime stories are the only thing that help me drift off.
‘I existed on about four hours’ sleep a night for six years,’ says Natalie, who is currently writing her second book about the PR industry.
‘My brain was constantly running, worrying about what I had to do the next day. Two years ago, I saw an advert for a phone app featuring bedtime stories and thought why not give it a go. It was a fairy tale about a bear getting lost in a forest. Within 20 minutes, I was asleep. I’m yet to get through a whole story – I drift off too quickly!’
Within minutes the storylines become dull, the idea being that the slow-paced, dulcet tones of the narrator will induce sleepiness in the listener
Not for children… but adults love them
Popular meditation app Calm was one of the first to offer bedtime stories for adults, in 2016.
Since then, more than 180 million sleep stories have been downloaded by Calm users – all of them adults.
Michael Acton Smith, co-founder of the app, says: ‘We noticed that people were listening to most of our meditation guides at 10 and 11 o’clock at night.
Joanna Lumley, pictured, has signed up to be a narrator for these adult bedtime stories
‘Clearly they were being used to fall asleep. So we thought, there’s an opportunity to create a modern bedtime story.’
Hundreds of apps have since replicated Calm’s formula, with some tweaking their narratives for optimum relaxation. Sleep With Me mixes fictional stories with intentionally dull ramblings about well-loved television programmes such as Doctor Who. Another, Pzizz, features so-called ‘dreamscapes’ which combine voiceovers, sound effects and music. It’s a stark contrast to the night-time habits of children, who are increasingly snubbing the bedtime story.
According to a survey earlier this month, 80 per cent of children choose to watch videos on tablets and smartphones instead. So what is the appeal for adults? Consultant psychologist Richard Graham says: ‘In times of political and social turbulence, adults want to connect to familiar, comforting rituals of the past. It is a way of coping with the information overload many of us struggle with every day. Listening, as opposed to watching, filters out the excess noise more effectively.’
According to Dr Steve Orma, a clinical psychologist who specialises in sleep, the secret lies in the ‘transition’ between wakefulness and slumber. ‘Most people come to bed with all the worries from the day still swirling around in their head,’ says Orma, a scientific adviser on Calm’s sleep stories.
‘It’s hard to transition from this stage of anxiety to sleep. The user associates bedtime stories with sleep, so signals are sent to the brain and body saying it is time to switch off. And the calming voice and neutral subject matter of the story focuses the mind into a state of relaxation. This helps ease the mind and body into sleep.’
Why listeners never get to the end
Can a simple bedtime story really triumph where essential oils, hot baths and even medication have failed?
This was certainly the case for entrepreneur Natalie. ‘Before the stories I felt like I was on a knife edge every night, wondering what bad thing would happen next. Now, I rarely ruminate. It’s as if I’m turning the day off.’
The sleep-inducing effect of bedtime stories is yet to be proven in studies. But research involving elderly people has found that listening to an audiobook every day reduced symptoms of depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Acton Smith explained the writing process and why it works.
‘Our writers are writing in reverse,’ says Acton Smith. ‘Each story starts off interesting or engaging and then gradually, it gets slower and softer. Pacing between words gets longer, the volume reduces and soothing songs start playing.
‘Rhythmic background noises such as lapping waves or the clickety-clack of train tracks feature often.’
Stephen Fry, pictured here on BBC Breakfast, also helps people to sleep by narrating the books
Just over 80 per cent of listeners don’t stay awake long enough to turn the stories off, according to Calm’s research.
And Dr Orma says: ‘People who listen to podcasts or radio before bed stay up until it finishes because they’re engaged. This sparks the release of chemicals in the brain that keep you awake. Sleep stories don’t pull you in, reducing the flow of chemicals.’
Tomorrow night, Natalie will escape her hundreds of unread emails, and be transported to an enchanting Moroccan forest. She’ll reach peak relaxation amid the rumbling cascade of the waterfalls and the quiet whistling winds.
‘I can hardly wait,’ she says.
The top five best sleep story apps
CALM: The first app to launch sleep stories in 2016 features more than 150 fantasy tales voiced by celebrities such as Leona Lewis, Stephen Fry and Joanna Lumley.
calm.com, free to download, £13.49 per month
SLUMBER: The ten free fantasy tales available here can be adjusted to add more or less background effects, as per your taste.
With me listed as one of the most popular podcasts, Sleep With Me offers bizarre two-hour-long drawls covering a host of random topics designed to bore you to sleep.
PZIZZ A favourite of author J. K. Rowling, Pzizz’s stories are focused largely on nature, taking the listener on whimsical journeys from rivers to oceans and through the ‘cave of dreams’.
The science-fiction stories, including Starship-28 and Trip To Mars, have been developed by neuropsychologists to trigger a sensory experience.