“O gentle sleep! / Nature’s soft nurse, how have I frighted thee /
That thou no more wilt weigh my eyelids down.”
Henry IV, as portrayed by Shakespeare, would have sympathised with people who struggle with insomnia.
Now a major publisher has come up with a novel idea — audiobooks with such soothing sounds as soft rainfall and lapping water to relax the listener and send them off to sleep.
In a project to be launched this week, Penguin Random House has collaborated with the Sleep Council and the Children’s Sleep Charity in creating collections of “Sleep Tales” for adults and children.
Combining “cutting-edge technology and the ancient art of storytelling to help solve an age-old problem”, these audiobooks are part soundscape, part descriptive narrative, with softly spoken voices to calm anxieties and take listeners to the land of nod.
Chronic insomnia, in which individuals have difficulties dropping off or staying asleep at least three nights a week for three months or more, is thought to affect about 10-15% of adults.
The Guardian analysed data from NHS Digital, the health service’s data provider in England, showing admissions of those aged 16 and under with a primary diagnosis of sleep disorder rose from 6,520 in 2012-13 to 9,429 last year.
Against a distant soundscape of chirping birds and lapping water, the narrator Sally Scott sets the scene: “This huge shiny expanse of water isn’t far from civilisation in terms of miles and yet, when you enter this ancient place, the bustling modern city is left behind, as if it ceases to exist at all, leaving with it all your stress and worries …”
Each story lasts about 15 minutes, enabling listeners to set their sleep timer.
The stories draw on the Sleep Council’s research into sounds that help people wind down, such as waves lapping on a shore, soft rainfall and birdsong.
Richard Lennon, publisher at Penguin Audio, told the Guardian the project was inspired partly by the realisation that increasing numbers of people were listening to audiobooks “as they’re going to sleep or as part of their bedtime routine”. He said both adults and children respond to something comforting and familiar as they are nodding off.
These are tales without a beginning, a middle or an end, he added:
“It’s something that’s being described to you, rather than a story that’s being told to you … Nothing happens that jolts you.”
There are no authors’ names.
He said: “We’re launching them as simply Penguin, Puffin and Ladybird Sleep Tales, rather than mentioning the writers by name because the Focus isn’t just on the words. The combination of the words, the voice and the sound design all contribute to the relaxing atmosphere.”
Asked whether a boring story could have the same effect, he said the stories needed to be “engaging enough not to put you off”: “This is about creating the right environment and headspace for you … to go to sleep. Strangely, if you’re bored, it doesn’t have that effect.”
Audience research had been very positive, Lennon said.
One listener reported: “The story made my mind stop racing.”
The phrase “sleep like a baby” does not apply to a lot of children, with four in 10 having sleep problems.
But Lennon said the children’s sleep tales were not intended to replace a bedtime story, only to become part of a bedtime routine.
Lisa Artis of the Sleep Council said not everyone liked the same sounds: “Some people love thunder and lightning or birds tweeting. That’s why we came up with different stories with different effects. For some people, listening to rain just makes them want to go to the loo. But I personally like the sound of rain. I find it quite therapeutic.”
She added that listening to “non-stimulating” stories were about switching off before bedtime: “It is the sort of thing you need to be doing before bed to feel more relaxed, rather than scrolling through Facebook and checking work e-mails … We need to forget about everything that’s going on because we will not get a good night’s sleep otherwise.” – Guardian News & Media
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