Sleep Smarts is your guide to shut-eye—with trusty tips, product recs, and new routines for a better night’s rest.
The best sleep of my life was thanks to a combination of fresh pajamas, jet lag, falling rain, and the background murmurings of Bravo’s Below Deck, a reality television show about the interpersonal dynamics of a mostly dissatisfied megayacht crew. But what works for me is not, apparently, what works for the rest of you.
We are in the age of Peak Bedtime Story, thanks to the convergence of the great audiobook boom with years of persistent, increasing sleep disruptions. Even before the pandemic brought on what sleep specialists call “coronosomnia,” one in five Americans reported suffering from chronic sleep problems, and one in three reported “not getting enough sleep on a regular basis.” And Big Wellness has been watching from the wings.
Over the better part of a decade, bedtime story content aimed at adults has tiptoed-in-socked-feet toward the mainstream. One of the earlier entrants was the sleep story library offered by wellness app Calm, which launched its first batch of nighttime tales in 2016. And Headspace—a meditation app with millions of monthly users—introduced its collection of “Sleepcasts” in 2018. Today, they are joined by a herd of others, including Slumber, Sleepiest, and BetterSleep. There are also free sleep story podcasts, like Sleep With Me, Drift Off, and Just Sleep.
Each puts a unique spin on the concept of a bedtime story, ranging from meandering descriptions of distant, natural landscapes to LeBron James narrating a tale about a king over a score by RZA. Some pull from the existing canon, as with Calm’s ASMR-ified rendition of The Velveteen Rabbit. Others, like Sleep With Me, are simply gibberish intended to get “progressively more boring, until you fall to sleep.” It reached three million downloads last year.
“McConaughey really put us on the pop culture map,” said a spokesperson for Calm, whose “growing library of sleep content quickly became some of the most beloved content.”
The first adult sleep story I tried was called “Hushed Theater.” An anonymous man began by explaining that I would be getting a peek behind the curtain as “the show” wrapped for the night. He didn’t say what show, but he did explain that the stage crew was busy preparing scenery for the next day. At this point, I found myself distracted by the memory that being “the stage crew head manager” was my father’s claim to fame in high school, and that according to his friend Phil, my dad used to walk around with all of the various stage keys tied to his combat boots so that they would jingle ostentatiously as he navigated hallways. I knew this was exactly the sort of aimless thinking the story was designed to eradicate, and I tried my best to refocus on the man’s voice.
“Tonight’s show was excellent,” the narrator was telling me, though he provided no further information about how it was received by the audience, or whether there were any wardrobe malfunctions backstage. Then, he made a hard pivot into a relaxation exercise.
“I can’t take this anymore,” I scribbled into the notebook I’d dragooned into a bedside sleep log, and stabbed at the pause button. “Need more plot,” I noted.
Phase Two: Even More Inner Peace, Please God Where Is the Inner Peace
I gave myself a few minutes to recover, then scoured all of the apps I’d downloaded, searching words like “cake,” “sweets” and “food.” Eventually, I found a story on Slumber titled “Rainy Day Bakery,” about the daily routine of a baker named Lily. I had a childhood dog named Lily who mostly displayed a pleasant temperament, so this seemed a good omen.
I liked the velvety voice of the narrator, which was soft and deep, with a vague British accent. A mellow and circuitous piano score played quietly behind his words, as though we were having a conversation in the back room of the Tower Bar. But after a few minutes, the slow pace of narration and the frankly shocking amount of details shared that were irrelevant to baked goods—“At the bottom of the hill, she turns left and crosses a small parking area”—made me irrationally angry. I had to turn it off.
Those are, apparently, the very qualities the creators of these stories aim to magnify.
“Some of our most popular Sleepcasts are Rainy Day Antiques, Slow Train, and Hushed Theater. I think it’s really a mixture of these familiar, calming locations, as well as their voice, tone and pacing,” Headspace's Content Director Elina Brown told me.
“Delivery needs to be slow, melodic and soothing, almost like a literary lullaby,” the spokesperson for Calm said.
And for many people, it appears to be working. Kelsey Davidson, a 37-year-old Program Manager at a large tech company who uses sleep apps more nights than not, told me, “I love an accent, and I love a train story. At this point, I’ve listened to almost all of the sleep stories on Calm.”
Of Calm’s users who turn to their sleep stories five times a week, 92% reported higher sleep quality, 74% reported improvement in mental health, and 72% reported less stress.
“Bedtime stories can rekindle some of the fonder memories we had growing up. It may give a sense of security and signal a sense of closure that we don’t give ourselves,” Dr. Kin M. Yuen, a sleep specialist who works at UCSF as well as in private practice, told me when I called to ask why a description of a woman navigating a parking lot to get to her day job might really do it for some people.
“The more we can reproduce what’s comforting and what we grew up with, the more likely that sleep will come,” said Dr. Yuen.
Phase Three: A Last-Ditch Attempt
That night, I called my mom to ask if I fell asleep listening to bedtime stories in my formative years. She did not answer. So I put in my headphones and took a trip to an anonymous Hammam, identifiable only by the following proffered details: “blue,” “a place of quiet beauty,” and “has a courtyard that radiates with peaceful activity.”
Shortly after the tale began, I realized I’d completely zoned out, and was thinking about how much I like Parmesan crisps. As soon as I caught myself, I tried to re-engage. A woman (not me, but not not me?) was, apparently, entering a hammam and all was calm and well. I thought about how I couldn’t remember the last time I entered a hammam, or spa, or massage parlor, and there wasn’t a customer trying to litigate some scheduling altercation, or negotiate a price reduction with a harried person behind the counter trying his or her best to keep everyone’s tones at a low level. Then, the narrator told me I myself would be one of the patrons, and I felt a tiny thrill, as I love to be at the center. But soon, I was once again considering Parmesan crisps, and whether it would disrupt my sleep too badly if I walked over to the pantry to eat a few. Jarringly, I realized that, per the narrator, someone was now washing me! It made me realize I had to pee, so I got up to do that, and when I got back to bed, I fell asleep before remembering to fumble with the thing to turn the story back on.
According to my sleep log, I slept deeply for eight and a half hours (pretty good, for me), and had an “epic and insane” dream in which I “latched onto the plan of two mean guys from my high school” to run away from home, but at the last minute, realized I “didn’t want to douse my bedroom with gasoline” and “disappear for good.”
Phase Four: Am I Broken?
The next morning, I tried my dad.
“Yeah, of course you liked bedtime stories when you were a kid,” he said. “Betsy Tacy, Dr. De Soto, Harold and The Purple Crayon. Ant and Bee. Bunny Planet had that whole tomato soup angle. But then came your Harry Potter years.”
I suspected that the time period during which my older sister Zoe and I shared a bedroom, and would fall asleep each night listening to Jim Dale audiobooks of Harry Potter come up at some point during my research. I wouldn’t describe it as a calming period in either of our lives, per se. Our conflicts mostly manifested as bedtime approached, and thus recourse needed to be silent and sneaky. The self-designated wronged party (typically me) would have to wait until the offending party (typically that fucking Zoe) could no longer stand to delay a trip to the bathroom, despite knowing full well it was completely mad to leave her bed unmanned. Then, the wronged party would take one of the six or so barely-drunk cups of water from her bedside table, sprint across the tiny room, and pour the water onto the offending party’s bed. If all went well, the wronged party would be back in her own bed, pretending to sleep, heartbeat like a jackhammer, as the offending party returned and, in the darkness, squelched down onto a wet mattress. All while Dale was describing a feast in the Great Hall, or a battle against a troll, or a dip into a magical bathtub full of magical bubbles.
“Is it possible,” I asked Dr. Abhinav Singh, the Medical Director of the Indiana Sleep Center, and a Medical Review panelist for the Sleep Foundation, “that through certain, um, not-calming incidents associated with bedtime stories, I could have broken myself after childhood?”
I told him that each time I’d tried to fall asleep to an adult bedtime story, I had become agitated, in demand of more plot, or different plot, or a faster speed, like someone out for a better fix.
“You may have a busier mind,” he said delicately. “It may just be that you need a little more practice. Everyone needs to find their own path into their sleep drive.”
Bedtime stories also have a procedural basis, not just a nostalgic one, according to Dr. Singh.
“Sleep isn’t a switch you can flip, it’s a flight. Are you showing up for a flight that takes off at 10 pm right at 10 pm? No,” he told me. “The stories help tether your busy mind onto something less stimulating. Your eyes are closed, the brain is hooked into them, and it’s not a whodunnit, it’s not sensational news – it’s something neutral and repetitive. Your mind gets tethered, and then your sleep can take off.”
But for what Dr. Singh calls a “small minority of the population,” these sleep stories might not form that tether.
“We do have patients who listen to audiobooks, or just sounds without words,” said Dr. Yuen. “It could be ocean, or crackling fire, or one of many sounds.” Still, Dr. Singh said, it might behoove me to give adult sleep stories another try. “It takes three weeks to make a habit in the brain,” he noted thoughtfully.
That night, my fiancé caught me in bed with Dame Mary Berry. “Afternoon tea, steeped in tradition, the scrumptious delicacies and fine details can make it quite the extravagant affair,” intoned Berry, her voice a warm scone in aural form. I was listening to A Very Proper Tea Party, in hopes that Berry might say the words “Victoria Sponge” over and over again. I fell asleep to her description of tea sandwiches, and had what I only described in my log as “a cool dream.”
The next night, determined to form a habit, I gave the ASMR Velveteen Rabbit a go. ASMRtist Emma Whispers Red began to recount a familiar tale of a soft little stuffed bunny who, through the love of his boy-owner, becomes real.
Just as I was nodding off, I felt a little kick on my shin.
“Why is her mouth so wet?” my fiancé said in a tone that chilled me to my core.
We tried a few more, but neither of us could get our minds to tether.
“Below Deck?” I said eventually.
“Below Deck,” he said.
I opened up my laptop. Blue light streamed into our dark bedroom, like we were witnessing a resurrection. And we fell right asleep to the sound of a Connecticut woman who works in finance blacking out after bullying all of her friends and fellow yacht guests at her own dinner party. She passed out right there on the dock, waking only briefly to punch one of her friends in the face.
+Someone please inject season two of Yellowjackets directly into my brain! Watch here, on Hulu.
+Kayla Stewart’s look at the history of the King Cake and the way it brings joy to present-day New Orleans is a must read, via The New York Times.
+Jaya Saxena asked the Tough Question: who is responsible for dessert hummus? You can read her deep dive on Eater.
+I have been screaming about how Horses in Los Angeles is my favorite new restaurant to anyone who will listen (so, like, two people), and I was thrilled to see it get a great review from Bill Addison in the Los Angeles Times. If you’re based in L.A., you should go ASAP, and order the Caesar Salad, which comes with radioactive-looking Mimolette grated over the top.
Ella Quittner is a contributing writer and the Absolute Best Tests columnist at Food52. She covers food, travel, wellness, lifestyle, home, novelty snacks, and internet-famous sandwiches. You can follow her on Instagram @equittner, or Twitter at @ellaquittner. She also develops recipes for Food52, and has a soft spot for all pasta, anything spicy, and salty chocolate things.
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