Apps that help you get to sleep

A number of apps feature stories and other readings to lull you off to the land of nod, writes Ruth O’Connor

“Cosy up in bed, get nice and comfortable and when you’re ready close your eyes…”

So begin the dulcet tones of Tamara Levitt, one of the most popular readers on Calm’s Sleep Stories, where her soothing voice helps many of the 9m people who’ve already downloaded the Calm app fall to sleep every night. Including me.

A chat some time ago with a colleague lead me to investigate whether sleep stories for grown-ups were something that first, weren’t laughable, and second, might just work for me. Could that familiar sense of comfort many of us know from childhood, that of stories lulling us to sleep, improve my ability to fall into a more restful sleep and more quickly to boot?

I downloaded the app, just the trial version to start, which has three or four stories (including one aimed at children) available for free.

I’m the type of person who lies in bed at night mulling things over in my head. Not even stressful issues but everything from planning what colour I’d like to paint the living room to which appointments or interviews need to be lined up that week. I could see that lack of sleep or the inability to fall asleep early enough was beginning to impact on my wellbeing during my waking hours. Instead of lying awake thinking about stuff, could the stories not only be soothing enough to make me relax, but could the very act of listening to a narrative take my mind off the worries of the day?

The Calm app was launched by two entrepreneurs, one of whom, Michael Acton Smith, is also the inventor of Moshi Monsters, with all their eye-popping, certainly-not-sleep-inducing colours and character. From bright and playful to restful and thoughtful, the Calm app was a new move for Acton Smith.

The app originally began life as a meditation aid but the team of developers began to notice that many of their users were doing meditations in the evening time and so, last December, the company added sleep stories to it.

There are currently around 30 stories to listen to, which range from fictional tales to nature essays and non-fiction essays read by narrators such as (my favourite) Tamara Levitt and Ben Stein, who played the droning economics teacher in cult classic Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. The full version of the app costs around €10 per month to access and you can do a free trial.

Acton Smith tells me that the success of his sleep stories app has surpassed even his expectations with very positive reviews and over two million listens per month and it looks set to grow as people become more informed about the benefits of a good night’s sleep.

If our parents always said that “Sleep is the best medicine” it seems the benefits of sleep are becoming an area of increased interest with best-selling books by the likes of Arianna Huffington espouses the benefits of a good night’s sleep.

“We spend a third of our life asleep yet most of us know very little about it,” says Acton Smith. “It has a huge impact on our health and wellbeing which is why more of us are taking an active interest in how to improve the quality of our sleep… It’s extremely important and we can do serious damage to our short-term and long-term health by failing to treat our sleep with the respect it deserves.”

Acton Smith’s company has learned that it’s not a case of one size fits all — some users love the fictional stories while some prefer the nature essays; some prefer the voices of the male narrators while others prefer female voices. For me, the common thread is the pace of the speech as well as the tone — my favourites tend to feature a low tone and a slow pace which is characteristic of the delivery of many of the narrators.

Acton Smith didn’t invent the sleep story and there are other people doing it. There’s Sleep with Me: The Podcast that Puts you to Sleep — a series of bedtime stories that “lets you forget your problems and progressively gets more boring until you fall to sleep”. It’s a free podcast available on iTunes, where the stories are downloaded over a million times every month. Topics include the difference between a mission and a quest, the science behind mood rings, and other wacky, weird, funny, and yet curiously boring stories delivered in the trademark low-register drawl of the narrator, Drew Ackerman, who goes by the name of Scooter.

There seems to be a pattern in sleep inducing stories — some of them entail a journey to a beautiful place and often it is the journey itself and the setting that is soothing.

In the case of Ackerman’s stories on Sleep with Me, it’s his voice and the rambling, non-linear story lines that are sleep-inducing and he has millions of fans who have found his voice and bedtime ramblings, which he spends many hours fine-tuning, a salve to the racing mind and an aid to sleep.

Acton Smith says that the sleep stories on the Calm app last around 20 minutes for children, with the minimum required for adults being 20 minutes long and the “sweet spot” being 35 minutes.

Apps that help you get to sleep

On Sleep with Me, the stories average around an hour in length but fans say that they never get to the end of the stories before drifting off to sleep.

Statistics from World Sleep Survey by Big Health, creators of the sleep app Sleepio (which works by helping people to manage their sleep schedule and by using cognitive behavioural therapy techniques and practical advice to help users improve their sleep) reveal that the average UK employee loses 8.5 days of work a year due to poor sleep.

Presumably it’s a similar situation in Ireland.

Professor Colin Espie, co-founder of Big Health and professor of sleep medicine at the University of Oxford, says: “The consequences of a bad night’s rest affect us not only physically but also mentally and emotionally, seriously impacting our performance at work.

“Physically we will feel lethargic, mentally we become slowed down with poorer concentration and memory, and emotionally we may become irritable and rather down, with bursts of hyperactivity. In terms of daily life, no aspect of daily functioning is unaffected by sleep — least of all our jobs.”

I don’t suffer from insomnia but stress and my natural disposition to worry were causing me sleepless nights. Now, thanks to sleep stories, I’m drifting off more easily to the Land of Nod. I’m not saying it’s a cure-all but if soothing, winding, and yes, potentially boring, narratives worked for me they might just be worth trying if you’re having trouble nodding off at night.;;


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