Are Calm bedtime stories the secret to helping you fall asleep?

If coronavirus stress is keeping you from getting your z’s, a story app may be the solution.
A young woman laying on her bed
It may be soothing, but a bedtime story or meditation isn't a fix for bad sleep habits. Catherine Delahaye / Getty Images

Some nights I curl up under my blankets and Matthew McConaughey lulls me to sleep. Or a lilting Scottish voice soothes my way into slumber. Or a deep, comforting voice tugs me down under into dreamland.

Hi, I’m 45 years old and I listen to bedtime stories.

Like a third of Americans, I don’t always get enough sleep. Often it’s because I have trouble just falling asleep. Unfortunately, my mind doesn’t have an off button (OK, and sometimes I stay up worrying about the global pandemic, binge-watching whatever’s trending on Netflix, and then go down the social media rabbit hole). The day after a bad night’s sleep I’m plagued with low energy and have trouble concentrating.

Discovering a new sleep aid

A little over a year ago I boarded a plane to Paris, resigned to spend the flight, as always, fidgeting in my coach seat and pleading with my brain to just please let me get some sleep. As a frequent traveler and sometimes travel writer, my inability to sleep on planes has always been frustrating.

I popped the prescribed sleep aid that never actually works, and to distract myself from the misery of economy class travel, turned on the seatback TV. There was something called a Sleep Story that featured wild ponies. Sure, why not? A kind, deep, gravely voice murmured in my ears, “It all began with a night at sea. The year was 1750.” I curled into my seat, smiling. “The waves were a foaming froth of white horses, gathering momentum.”

I opened my eyes. We were somewhere across the Atlantic. I had fallen asleep on a plane! Truly, this was nothing short of a miracle for me.

A year passed and I got on another trans-Atlantic overnight flight. Would the pony story, as I thought of it, be there? It was! With the unimaginable luxury of a four-seat row to myself on a mostly empty flight I plugged into narrator Alan Sklar and Phoebe Smith’s tale of shipwrecked ponies, and again, slept my way across the night sky.

Try this at home

This time when I came home I looked to see where I could find this marvelous sleep aid to use in my own bed. It was a feature of the meditation app Calm, and buying just the one story wasn’t an option. It came as part of a $69.99 annual subscription — more than I’d ever spent on an app. But the promise of sleep won out, and I downloaded Calm.

Night after night since, I’ve fallen asleep to stories of train rides across Siberia, boat rides down the Oxford Canal, a twilight walk around a neighborhood. I save the extra-strength power of Alan Sklar’s lulling voice for the hardest day’s night and McConaughey’s mesmerizing drawl for a special treat. I’ve even self-soothed with the Sleep Stories during a root canal.

And I had to wonder: how does something so simple bring me the ease of slipping into sleep that’s eluded me my entire life?

For answers, I reached out to Calm’s Head of Sleep Stories, Chris Advansun, and to Nancy A. Haug, a professor and associate chair in the department of psychology at Palo Alto University and an adjunct clinical associate professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine. Haug reviewed Calm for the mental health app guide PsyberGuide, and as a clinical psychologist, she uses apps like Calm as tools to support therapy goals.

I wanted to know what kind of magic this was, but there’s nothing mysterious about it at all — according to both Advansun and Haug.

“The main thing we’re solving for is thoughts at night,” Advansun said. “So many of us go to drift off and we have what scientists who study this call ‘sleep disturbance.’” We get stuck in a cycle of thinking about stressful events, about conversations we’ve had or will have, or other stressors that make falling asleep difficult.

And that’s no surprise. “The mind is a thought-generating machine and sometimes that’s hard to shut down,” Haug said. While she wouldn’t use an app as a primary method for treating insomnia, she said, “the idea is if you become relaxed or focused [on] listening, your brain can actually slow down.”

You’re getting very sleepy

The Calm team didn’t set out to read people bedtime stories. “What tipped us off was so much meditation content being consumed at night,” said Advansun. “That’s part of what inspired the idea.” While it began as what could seem like “kind of a kooky experiment,” he said, “it struck a chord.”

Advansun explained that Sleep Stories “gave permission to grown-ups, to people of all ages, to return to [what] was one of the most comforting and soothing experiences they’d had as children — just cuddling up and being spun a tale by someone they love and trust.” These stories offer relief for people’s busy brains. “They give listeners something to hold their attention in a peaceful way.”

The stories are designed — both in narration and writing — to be peaceful and soothing, according to Advansun. “I think of the script as a blueprint for the narrator to be luxurious and beautiful in their performance,” he said. “Using flow, using poetry, using image, using rhythm all as ways to ... lull the listener to sleep.”

If the goal was to guide listeners into dreamland, the story creators couldn’t rely on traditional narrative structure. Rather, Advansun said, they realized they needed to invert it. “Instead of building up drama and tension, we unroll it.” In fact, in some of my favorite stories — most of which involve a train ride — very little of anything happens at all (which makes it perfectly OK that I rarely finish listening to a Sleep Story).

Of course even the most soothing story wouldn’t work if the voice weren’t right. “The voice is the starting place,” said Advansun. While there are some vocal traits like depth and resonance that make for a good narrator, he said, there are some intangibles, too, like trustworthiness and sincerity. “You’re lying there, it’s intimate, you want to feel like you’re in good hands.”

Wait two hours and call me in the morning

But a bedtime story may not be a cure-all. “It’s important to emphasize sleep hygiene,” Haug said. “If you’re doing things that aren’t supporting healthy sleep habits, the Calm app is not the fix.”

Caffeine after 2 p.m., any screens an hour before bed and keeping the phone at your bedside, “those things are stimulating and your brain wants to stay awake,” she said. And then there’s worry. “As soon as you start to associate bed with worries and anxiety that’s going to interfere with sleep,” she said.

To address bedtime worry, Haug suggests a cognitive behavioral technique called constructive worry that encourages people to manage anxiety and worry earlier in the evening. “Do it a few hours before bed,” she said. “Create a constructive worry worksheet, write down your concerns, then go through potential solutions. If there’s not one, you still write it down. Write a note, maybe ‘I’m going to talk to someone about this.’ Then you put it away.”

A tool like the Calm app can be supportive along with these other healthy habits, she said, but it’s not a substitute for therapy.

One nice thing, I’ve found, is that listening to a Sleep Story, and sometimes a meditation beforehand, has replaced my endless night-time scrolling. I mean, it’s no contest when it comes to staring at Facebook till my eyes glaze over — or drifting off to sleep in the dark, just me and Matthew McConaughey.