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Bedtime Story Apps Help Users Relax for Better Sleep

Having trouble dozing off? Your phone can read to you

Close up of a senior lady listening to music while lying in bed
Getty Images

It's late at night, and your mind is racing. A familiar feeling, brought on by work-life imbalance, family stresses and a zillion other nagging concerns. Ah, to be a kid again and be lulled to sleep with a soothing story. Enter Calm.com, a sleep and meditation app that caters to millions of overwound adults.

With a regularly refreshed list of 150-plus bedtime stories — as well as guided meditations, expert-led classes, videos on stretching, and music to promote sleep or concentration — the app has all the tools to help you achieve a zen state of mind.

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Most narratives are about 35 minutes and range from childhood standbys, including Alice in Wonderland and Cinderella, to travel-escapism tales, lullabies, and anecdotes centered on animals and nature.

Ideas often come from Calm writers’ travel experiences and app users’ requests, says executive producer Nicholas Head. The tales go through a rigorous editing phase to make sure they provide a tranquil transition to slumber.

Screenshot of Calm app's "Sleep Stories" feature.
Calm.com, INC

"There's definitely a unique art to how these are created,” he explains. “We love to build immersive experiences for the listener, where all their senses are engaged, so they can enjoy the story and leave any tension from the day behind.”

Tamara Levitt, Calm's head of mindfulness and a story writer and narrator, was inspired by her persistent insomnia. After benefiting from having a friend tell her anecdotes late at night, she figured out how to craft the ideal yawn-inducing yarn.

"I knew they shouldn't have any jolting language and they should be delivered in a soft, soothing way,” she says. “Unlike most stories that are lively, we keep voice fluctuation and intonation to a minimum.”

Among the narrators guiding listeners into the twilight zone are celebrities such as Matthew McConaughey, LeVar Burton and Stephen Fry.

Among the competitors in the booming relaxation-app industry are Slumber, which has meditations, stories and background sounds; Pzizz, which creates sound sequences based on “psychoacoustic principles"; and Relax & Sleep Well, offering hypnosis and meditation recordings.

David Neubauer, M.D., associate director of the Johns Hopkins Sleep Disorders Center, says that while no major research has been done on the effectiveness of bedtime-story apps, he has patients who find them helpful.

"Many individuals carry to bed with them stressful thoughts of the day or possibly a nightly sense of worry that they will have trouble sleeping that night,” he notes. “It does make sense that a relaxing audio bedtime story can reduce that distracting mental activity and allow one to drift off to sleep more comfortably."

But listeners may get too caught up in a story and stay awake longer than if they heard nothing, Neubauer warns, and “using an app requires interacting with a phone or tablet at the bedside, which some people purposely avoid to help resist the temptation to check for messages or the latest postings if they awaken during the night."

A one-year subscription is $60; calm.com.