Healthy Sleeping Habits

5 Bedtime Story Podcasts That Just Might Be the Secret to Better Sleep in Stressful Times

Photo: Getty Images/Innocenti
Most of us outgrew the ritual of being read bedtime stories once we learned to read on our own. And, since then, many of us might've even swapped books altogether for pre-sleep streaming binges. But with pandemic-related sleep disturbances and nightmares on the rise, those soothing tales of yore—with a grown-up, digital-age twist—might just be worth revisiting. With elements of guided meditations and audiobooks, bedtime story podcasts mimic the comfort of a childhood ritual while using intentional calming techniques that quiet the noise that's come to define being an adult in 2020.

It's worth mentioning that elevated stress and anxiety can alter the quality and quantity of our sleep by overstimulating the sympathetic nervous system. Because, well, between a pandemic, a tense election cycle, and a societal reckoning with systemic racism, many are experiencing heightened stress and anxiety. “An increase in stress can trigger the activation of the fight-or-flight response," says therapist and sleep medicine expert Annie Miller, LCSW-C, founder of DC Metro Sleep and Psychotherapy. "Our brain feels more in danger, and the release of stress hormones, like cortisol, can keep us awake."

Staying indoors more, as many are while quarantining, can also play a role in sleep troubles because less sun exposure can disturb circadian rhythm and make falling and staying asleep more difficult. In addition, a decrease in social events means we’ve blended the line between life and sleep, often reading, working, scrolling social media, or watching television in bed—all of which weakens the brain's association between bed and sleep. “Since the pandemic started, sleep schedules have changed," says Miller. "Many people seem to be staying up later and sleeping later, and for some of us, the change in sleep patterns and a lack of consistent sleep schedule can trigger insomnia symptoms.”

We're not destined to endless, sleepless nights, though, and bedtime story podcasts are one potential tool that can help mitigate sleep challenges. By promoting mindfulness, they can help to lower stress-induced insomnia. Kathryn Nicolai, storyteller, meditation and yoga teacher, and creator of the podcast Nothing Much Happens: Bedtime Stories for Grownups, has long believed in the power of stories for helping to improve our lives. Nicolai launched the podcast in April 2018 to help relieve the stress and anxiety so many of us face. “Our world is increasingly chaotic, and if I can help people get a good night’s sleep, that’s everything," she says. "I knew I wanted to share these stories with other people to give them a soft landing spot for their mind.”

Nothing Much Happens promotes restful sleep through stories that emphasize sensory details, which anchor your attention in something beyond the stressors of daily life. The stories also lean strongly into the seasons to create room for nostalgia about the sweeter parts of life—whether that’s cozying up with a cup of coffee during fall or watching the fireflies light up on a summer night. Nicolai, author of the just-released book form of Nothing Much Happens, says she strategically mentions sights, sounds, tastes, feelings, and noises that feel inherently familiar to everyone, and according to Miller, she's on to something: rooting your mind in the senses is a fundamental practice of mindfulness that helps increase the relaxation response to settle the brain before bed. “Mindfulness helps bring us back to the present moment and can decrease activation of the sympathetic nervous system," Miller says.

“Reading [or listening to] books, regardless of your age, takes us on an adventure that’s outside our normal life experience.” — Kevin Gilliland, PsyD

Bedtime stories are a great way to set aside the drama of the day and practice mindfulness, because they invite you into another world between reality and dreamland. And, bedtime story podcasts are a helpful, accessible strategy for implementing the habit. “Reading [or listening to] books, regardless of your age, takes us on an adventure that’s outside our normal life experience,” says Kevin Gilliland, PsyD, executive director of counseling service Innovation360. “Our brain responds very well to routines. When we create healthy bedtime routines for ourselves, our sleep can greatly improve. As your brain begins to associate bedtime with relaxation instead of stress, sleep will become easier."

Regularly listening to bedtime story podcasts like Nothing Much Happens can be a game changer when you’re struggling to sleep well and often. So to get started with your own relaxing bedtime routine, check out the following five bedtime story podcasts.

1. Get Sleepy: Sleep Meditation and Stories

Get Sleepy relies on mindfulness elements, like body and breath awareness to prepare listeners for childlike stories about treehouses and spaceships. The writers and meditation specialists who create each story are guided by sleep experts, so you can count on this one to do the trick.

2. Boring Books for Bedtime

Boring Books for Bedtime uses real literary works to, per its name, bore you to sleep. Expect to hear big ideas from writers like Henry David Thoreau, and to travel through place and time to locales like 19th century Scotland.

3. Calm Sleep Stories

For the uninitiated to the Calm app, the platform offers a whole section of bedtime-friendly podcasts. Calm’s sleep stories add soothing sound and music to the spoken prose, which adds up to a solid dose of storytelling and sleep-inducing tones.

4. Sleep Whispers

When you need to escape from the noise of daily life (whether that includes the to-do list in your head, the literal sound of noisy neighbors, or both), let BBC host Whispering Harris be your guide. In Sleep Whispers, he reads both traditional bedtime stories and Wikipedia articles with a hushed, quiet voice you can’t help but ignore.

5. Miette’s Bedtime Story Podcast

Miette’s Bedtime Story Podcast is perfect for those who want to be read actual works of literature. Browse through 100 episodes based on themes, characters, and places that’ll guide you into stress-free sleep.

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