Sleep

Could falling asleep to a podcast solve your sleep woes?

Bedtime stories might sound childish, but could be the path to better zzz's.

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This may come as no surprise: People say they’re sleeping more during the pandemic, but their quality of sleep has gone down. And it’s no secret that stress isn’t sleep’s best friend, but what should you do if you face racing thoughts and general restlessness at night?

One thing that might be worth trying: Sleep-oriented audio tracks, like sleep stories or podcasts, that are specifically designed to help you doze off. The idea of listening to a narrator weave a bedtime tale might sound strange or even childish. I’m the sleep writer here at Reviewed, and even when I first learned about them, I was skeptical. But I grossly underestimated the soothing powers of a good bedtime story. So if you’re struggling to catch quality zzz’s and ready to give something new a whirl, this is what you need to know.

How does listening to a podcast help you sleep?

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Sleep audio can offer a reprieve from thinking about the stresses of day-to-day life, making it easier to doze off.

Counting sheep has had a longstanding reign as the king of get-to-sleep tactics. But—surprise—it doesn’t usually work because sheep simply aren’t interesting enough, according to Nitun Verma, MD, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. “The rest of the mind is still thinking about the stresses of the day,” he says.

And that’s where sleep audio can come in. “If people need just a little more interesting content to prepare for sleep, a relaxing podcast can be something to try out,” Verma says, adding that audio-based sleep content can take the mind off the pressure of falling asleep. So if you’re one of those people who finds it easy to doze off on the couch when the TV is on but not when you’re in bed (and the TV is off) and actually trying to get shuteye, sleep-friendly audio could help.

Podcast apps, like Stitcher and Apple's native podcast app, often have sleep timers so you can turn the audio off after a set length of time, or at the conclusion of the episode (so the next podcast in the queue or playlist doesn't just start rolling). So if you need just enough audio to fall asleep and don't want the sound running all night, well, there's an app for that.

As always, it all depends on the person. For some, sleep podcasts and stories can offer a unique type of white noise and guide you to sleep. Plus, their accessibility and easiness make them a great option for anyone who is ready to try new things to improve their sleep.

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What is a sleep podcast?

sleep with me
Credit: Sleep with Me

Drew Ackerman, host and creator of "Sleep with Me," focuses on making listeners feel safe and relaxed through meandering conversation.

Sleep podcasts are designed to help you fall asleep by providing something you can focus on but that’s not distracting enough to keep you awake. Drew Ackerman, host of “Sleep With Me,” one of the most popular sleep podcasts, compares his show to a conversation in which you have no responsibility. “I’m like a friend [listeners] have no obligation to listen to,” he says. They don’t need to reply, engage, and ask about Ackerman’s day—he’s just providing friendly chatter.

“Sleep with Me,” which is downloaded about 3.3 million times per month, tries to lull listeners into relaxing. “I’m looking to create a safe place where listeners feel like they can give me their attention, enough so that I’m distracting them from what’s keeping them awake … they can just listen to me instead of thinking, or take their mind off whatever they’re experiencing emotionally or physically,” he says.

Ackerman's aim in his podcast is to keep you following along, but only just enough to distract a busy mind, not engage it. For example, in an episode titled “Recycled Silly String”, Ackerman's narrative goes from words of encouragement, “whatever [keeps you up], I’m here to help… But I also don’t want you to feel any pressure to fall asleep,” to thinking about the words “pitter patter,” and if we’ve idealized the sound of rain. From there, he moves to talking about new pets, and encouraging listeners who are getting two new pets at the same time to name one “pitter,” and the other “patter,” and discusses the gerbil he had as a kid. It almost feels like when you get into a deep conversation with someone and try to backtrack to how you got from point A to point B, which are completely unrelated topics.

There are other styles and approaches to sleep podcasts. Get Sleepy is another popular podcast available on Spotify. The majority of episodes aren’t storytelling, either, but rather transport you to a landscape far from your bed. “You’ve been relaxing in a deck chair, on a rooftop terrace for a while now, reclined and watching the clouds come and go … It’s the perfect outdoor atmosphere, a soft golden sun warms without burning,” is the beginning of the visualization in an episode titled, “An Evening on the Terrace.” The descriptive audio is paired with ambient sounds, or music, that match the vibe of the story or location. It’s not conversational, like “Sleep with Me,” but it also doesn’t provide a structured storyline.

How are sleep stories different from sleep podcasts?

Nothing Much Happens
Credit: Nothing Much Happens

Story based sleep audio often takes listeners through the experience of a location, or process, like cooking or closing a bookshop.

Some apps and podcasts tout "sleep stories.” Unlike other podcasts that are intended to serve as spoken white noise, sleep stories are just that: Actual narratives meant to soothe and help you doze off.

“Nothing Much Happens” is one popular sleep story podcast that's designed for grown-ups. Kathryn Nicolai, the creator and host of the podcast and author of a forthcoming book of sleep stories, has been telling herself stories to help facilitate sleep since she was a kid. And while kids might want bedtime stories about adventures, too much exciting narrative can be overwhelming for adults, Nicolai says. “[In a story] we’re not going on an adventure in a pirate ship, we’re going to make a pot of soup and take a bath,” she says. “But that’s the kind of thing adults find quite enjoyable [while] a six year old might find that boring.”

Even more “boring,” Nicolai walks listeners through the story once, and then repeats the same story, narrated at a slower pace. The idea is to lull not stimulate you. In fact, I listened to an episode about exploring trails in the woods, with detailed descriptions of the sensations, from sight to smell, during a workday (not to nap) and didn’t even notice when she restarted the tale.

Podcast platforms aren’t the only way to find sleep stories. A number of popular meditation apps also offer this type of content.

Headspace has “sleepcasts,” which combine a brief wind-down, or meditation exercise, with a story underlaid with ambient noise that matches the story’s setting. “Rainday Antiques,” one of the only sleepcasts available to users of the free version of the app, is about an antique shop that’s open 24/7. The narrator describes the antique shop and the type of people who visit, layered with the sound of rain. One unique feature of Headspace’s sleepcasts is the ability to adjust the balance of the ambient sound with the audio, so you can raise or lower the volume of once versus the other to your preferences.

Calm also offers a broader spectrum of sleep content than Headspace, and users may try any of the four free stories (once, or as many times suits them) before committing to a subscription, which gives access to more than 50 fictional sleep stories and over 75 non-fiction sleep stories. One of the free sessions is a story about fields of lavender in France. Another is an odd take on sleep content: a narration of the rules of tennis by John McEnroe.

Unlike Headspace and Calm, Relax Melodies is almost entirely geared towards sleep and evening relaxation. Many of the sessions are visualizations, which use detailed storytelling to transport users to a different landscape and lull them to sleep. Relax Melodies offers two free and continually accessible sleep stories to people using the free version.

How do sleep meditations work?

resized woman earbuds
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Meditation apps, like Headspace and Calm, often offer sleep specific content.

Headspace and other meditation apps also have sections devoted to sleep-inducing meditations. Unlike daytime meditations, these sessions are designed to help you doze off with deep breathing, visualizations, and “noting,” wherein you briefly acknowledge a feeling and let it move along.

In its paid version, Headspace has nine wind downs, which are sessions designed to help you settle down and relax for the night. They range from just two minutes to 20 minutes, and many offer users the option to pick a length. In one of the two free sessions, titled "Sleeping," Andy Puddicombe, the co-founder and narrator for many Headspace sessions, encourages listeners to think about powering down various parts of their body from their legs to arms and even jaw. He tells listeners to recognize that their body is relaxed and "allow the mind to drift" while counting backwards from 1,000 to zero.

Calm's paid version provides users with 13 meditations for sleep, some of which include multiple sessions. "7 Days of Sleep," for example, comprises seven sessions that target different aspects of sleep, from winding down and preparing for sleep to getting rid of worries from the day. The app has a bigger selection of sleep meditations than Headspace but lacks specific types, like sessions to help you fall back asleep after jolting awake in the night.

Finally, subscription-based Relax Melodies offers its own array of meditations. The app also has sessions for “body scanning,” a form of guided meditation geared toward winding down in which you focus on different parts of the body and how they feel to foster relaxation.

A variety of free podcasts that incorporate sleep meditations are also available on Spotify, Stitcher, and Apple Podcasts.

What are the potential downsides of sleep podcasts and stories?

cell phone nightstand
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One downside of using sleep audio and podcasts is having your phone in the bedroom or close by overnight.

Of course, there are negatives to having and using technology in your bedroom, especially right before bed. Blue light emitted by your phone might keep you up. Technology that’s designed to promote constant engagement can get in the way of a good night’s sleep, Verma says. Some of the podcasts are long enough that you can start them as you’re winding down, and set your phone aside, with a sleep timer set in the app, if that's an option, so the audio turns itself off. (You may also hack your phone's settings to make it more sleep-friendly.) Ackerman has heard from listeners who turn the on the podcast and listen to the meandering introduction as they get ready for bed.

In selecting audio-based sleep content, Verma also advises being cognizant of changes in volume. Podcasts and stories that fluctuate from soft to loud can be disruptive and cause you to be jolted awake during loud moments, while dozing off in quiet ones, he says. In fact, the stable and unchanging nature of white noise is one of the reasons some people find it so effective. It can be hard to predict volume fluctuation when you’re just looking at a podcast for the first time and without giving it a listen. It becomes a matter of trying things on for size and seeing which styles, approaches, content and even app settings work best for you.

Is sleep audio a good fit for you?

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There are numerous options for anyone interested in exploring sleep audio and podcasts, experts suggest giving it a try and seeing what works for you.

The available options for sleep podcasts and sleep stories have grown to a point where there’s truly something for everyone, so Ackerman encourages everyone to try some version of audio to fall asleep, because anything that helps is a good idea. “You’re worth it. And your sleep is worth it,” he says.

Both Ackerman and Nicolai emphasized creating a feeling of “safety” for their listeners—somewhere their listeners can relax and let go of day-to-day stressors. They both try to foster a friendly but soothing tone. Of course, you might not like their approaches to content, and there’s no singular podcast or sleep story source that is guaranteed to work for you. Try on different podcasts and audio for size through your podcast provider of choice or free versions of popular meditation apps. Some Reddit users even report using “Case Files”, a podcast about murder, to go to bed. And if those suit some people, who’s to say there isn’t something out there that will suit you, too?

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