Why we need bedtime stories more than ever
Once upon a time, you used to lie in bed listening to a familiar voice read you a sweet, simple story. You felt safe and relaxed and you slowly drifted off to sleep. Then that stopped. You had to start reading to yourself. Which was great, but required concentration and brain activity that sometimes felt more like a fight to keep awake. And then that stopped too. And now you, like millions of others, often end your days staring at an email inbox, box-set or instagram feed, the blue light from the screens inhibiting the release of the sleep hormone, melatonin with terrible effects on sleep quality and mental health. Netflix and zero chill.
Why do bedtime rituals matter?
Developing and sticking to a familiar routine at bedtime is proven to be a key to getting a good night’s sleep. From an evolutionary viewpoint, as we get ready for sleep, we are preparing for the fact we are about to make ourselves completely vulnerable to attack. So anything out of the ordinary could spell danger. And danger means adrenalin, our own clever chemical way of ensuring we don’t fall asleep.
It begins in childhood. Dr Mindell and Dr Kurtz, of The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, found that a consistent bedtime routine with no surprises was crucial to sleep quality and continuity. And it continues in adulthood. A study by University of Haifa found that maintaining bedtime habits is associated with a reduced rate of insomnia.
Why are stories such a powerful part of any bedtime ritual?
When our mind is swirling with the facts and thoughts of the day, stories help us shift down a gear before bed. They enable us to bypass those frustrating feelings of over-thinking (‘analysis paralysis’) and the ‘sleep paradox’ (the more you try and sleep, the more elusive sleep becomes). This is because our visual cortex and occipital lobe are engaged in imagination, so the analytical pre-frontal cortex quietens down.
The evocative journey literature takes us on serves many purposes for adults and children alike. Embedding stories into our pre-sleep ritual can not only help us to let go of stress, but it provides a bridge for our conscious mind to step over to dreamland.
For children, as well as getting lost in their own imaginations, hearing a parent or guardian’s voice could be the reassurance their evolutionary brain needs to know that it’s safe to switch off.
Why might listening to stories be better than reading them?
First of all, you don’t need a light on to listen. And in the dark your melatonin can start to do it’s thing. Secondly, as a more passive activity than reading, your thoughts have license to wander into those random thoughts that act as a precursor to dreams.
As we sleep, our hearing sense is one of last things to shut down. It’s also the first sense to come back in the morning, which is why hearing the birds sing their morning chorus is often what bring our mind to consciousness.
Crucially listening to a story may subliminally take you back to those soothing childhood sensations of calm and security. Furthermore, resurrecting an old habit is so much easier that creating a brand new one. Think of it like a forest path you regularly walked as a child, which eventually became overgrown as you walked it less and less. Then all of a sudden you cut it all back years later. The pathway underneath is still there. Your brain works in a similar way.
All of this may explain why people are increasingly turning to audio as a means of switching off. A recent study* by Simba revealed that 8.7m (13%) of us in the UK find that listening to something before bed helps us sleep better than reading a physical book.
Audiobooks are the fastest growing segment in the digital publishing industry. Calm, the wellness app that creates bedtime stories for grown-ups has witnessed a staggering 60 million listens of their sleep stories in just 18 months. This month alone they had 5m, which is double since this time last year.
And nearly one in four (23%) of us are choosing audio as a way to reduce screen time before bed, with 30% agreeing it has a calming effect. Many of my clients also tell me they find that listening to audiobooks and podcasts in the evening helps them relax and nod off.
Guided by voices
Losing ourselves in a world painted with words and sounds is an excellent way of dialling down those stress levels and getting the most out of your sleep. Cognitive neuropsychologist Dr David Lewis found that listening to music before bed reduced stress levels by 61%. Professors Good and Lai found that listening to the soothing sound of soft music before bed significantly better sleep quality.
This rise of the guided voice correlates with a growing awareness of the screen-based stress; which may mean that people are increasingly reading with their ears as a way of relaxing.
Using audio in the evening habitually helps to systematically shut down the rest of the senses and better prepares the mind and body for that familiar sleep state.
In the dreaming part of the sleep cycle, REM, we dream in pictures, not in words. So, anything we can do to switch on the imaginal centres of our brain before bed is a sure-fire way of preparing the mind for deep sleep. And when the imaginal centres of the brain are lit up, it closes down the analytically driven language centre of the brain. This is what helps to coax us toward the peaceful, alpha brainwave state necessary for getting good sleep.
Why listening to fantasy fiction is best of all
A dramatic or gory page-turner is not conducive to a relaxing state of mind but rather a story that unfolds, that has pace and flow, that takes us on a sensory journey with ambient sounds and soft tones.
Simba’s study revealed there are certain types of fiction which are more effective at relaxing us than others, with fantasy coming out on top.
And *one in ten believe that children’s books settle their mind best before bed.
Most of us were happier and care-free as children, so reconnecting with that time can remind us how to be happy when adult life can get a little overwhelming. Like colouring-in books, children’s stories can help reconnect us with a simpler time.
According to Simba’s research *10.7m of us in the UK (16%) believe that tuning into nostalgic memories helps us to unwind.
Revisiting favourite books from our childhood not only reminds us of an early brain-encoded bedtime habit, but they also help to ignite our imagination.
And with *one in seven (14%) of us believing that tapping into our imagination before helps us to sleep, perhaps insomnia’s aid may not be found at the bottom of a bottle, but rather between the pages of a storybook.
So if we all spend less time scrolling through Facebook and more time reading to each other we’d all live happily ever after.
Independent research of 2000 UK adults commissioned by sleep technology brand, Simba and carried out by One Poll:
Carried out between 10.5.18 and 14.5.18
Figures based on the population of UK 2018 – 66,573,504