Smart Health: I Tried Headspace’s Sleepcasts — and Now I Fall Asleep Within Minutes

Worries over the global COVID-19 pandemic were wrecking my sleep. These bedtime stories really helped.

For most of my life, falling asleep hasn’t been much of an issue for me. For a while, it wasn’t necessarily for the right reasons — I was so exhausted from work stress and not getting enough sleep in general, I would drift to sleep as soon as my head hit the pillow. But eventually, I made the effort to establish a bedtime routine and stick to it (at the same time) each night. I’d gotten on track.

Then came the global COVID-19 pandemic. Since my wife, Karla, is a paramedic, anxiety over her safety — even when she was sleeping right next to me — turned my once-reliable pre-bedtime drowsiness into a half hour of what-if thoughts. After reading that meditation is good for sleep, I tried some meditation techniques like deep breathing and visualization, using the Headspace app with lackluster results. Then I decided to try the app’s “sleepcasts” to see if that might help.

What Is a Headspace Sleepcast?

Headspace is a mindfulness and meditation app that can be downloaded wherever you get apps, like Apple’s App Store and Google Play. It has quite a bit of free content, but to unlock all of its features requires a subscription of $69 per year or $12.99 monthly. The app has guided meditation tracks, as well as videos, tips (on topics like “how to be more empathetic”), and meditation practices you can do while running or walking.

In 2018, Headspace started producing additional content specifically designed to help you sleep, including guided meditations for when you wake up in the middle of the night, music that’s low-key and calming, and soundscapes of gentle rain and ocean waves.

And now available on your Headspace app are sleepcasts. Each one offers a tour of a dreamy landscape, with voice actors as guides, providing details in soft, comforting tones. Each one is about 45 minutes, beginning with a wind down (either a breathing exercise or relaxation visualization) and followed by a narration of the place. There’s no plot to follow and rarely are people described, but they feel like stories anyway. Told from a second-person perspective, they lead “you” through options like a cozy cottage alongside a lake, a suburban bungalow where hummingbirds gather at night, or a porch where you witness a monsoon sweeping across a distant city.

Each sleepcast is set in the evening or at night, and many involve water — lagoons, rain, rivers, ponds, oceans. You can make adjustments within the app to dial up the background ambient noise, make the narration quieter or louder, or turn the narration off completely. The ones that aren’t in natural settings are set in quiet, empty spaces (a library, museum, or Laundromat, for example), all lacking artificial light, the blue tint of moonlight making the visualizations feel more surreal.

The sleepcasts are slightly remixed nightly, so you can listen to the same one and encounter many familiar details but not so many that you can memorize the narrative and know what’s coming next. Headspace notes on its website that’s because knowing the “story” would give you a sense of tracking the passage of time — a potential cause of anxiety that could counterproductively interfere with sleep.

The sleepcasts are designed to provide content that creates the right conditions for healthy, restful sleep, according to Headspace.

Much like they do for children, bedtime stories for adults work well on several levels, according to Xue Ming, MD, PhD, a sleep disorders specialist and professor of neurology at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School in Newark. First, they condition your brain to prepare for sleep.

Remember, the brain loves to create habits. The more you listen to sleepcasts or other sleep content, the faster your heart rate will lower and your breathing will become deeper, because the content becomes a trigger that tells your brain it’s time to relax, says Dr. Ming.

The multiple visual and audio elements — pleasant background sounds, visualizations, and soothing words used in the descriptions — help downshift your conscious awareness, too, rather than keeping the brain fired up with tasks like solving problems or even maintaining consistent focus.

Here’s What Happened When I Tried It

To be honest, I was resistant to trying sleepcasts at first, because I was doubtful that I could fall asleep with someone talking. I don’t have a TV in my bedroom because I’ve never been the type to get drowsy with a show or a movie in the background. But then my wife — who had been listening to the sleepcasts on her 24-hour shifts — said there was one involving cats, and that did it. I was in.

We started by listening to “cat marina,” which is about a stretch of houseboats that all have at least one cat resident. I did my usual pre-bed routine of pretending I wasn’t going to look at Instagram and then doing it anyway, followed by reading a few pages of a long book I should finish sometime in my next life. Then I put my phone in the middle of my bed in the space between me and Karla and hit play.

The narration began with a breathing exercise designed to relax the body before the story started, and I did feel much more mellow once the sleepcast officially kicked off. I knew the narration would last about 45 minutes, so I cozied in and figured I’d be hearing a lot about houseboats in the moonlight but ended up falling asleep after about three minutes (according to Karla’s account). Twice, I reemerged from my light sleep to hear the voice, but it wasn’t annoying; it actually worked to lull me back into a deeper sleep.

For two weeks afterward, I listened to a different sleepcast every night — currently, there are 30 choices — trying out the different narrators for the different stories. (Some have male voices, some have female voices, some have accents, and so on.) And it turned out that for me they all worked.

Not only did I end up falling asleep within around five minutes of a sleepcast’s start, but I started dozing off during the opening exercise. As Ming explained, I’d conditioned myself to think of the sleepcast as a trigger for sleep, and my brain was a fan.

Three Things I Liked About Headspace Sleepcasts

In addition to being effective, there were several aspects about the Headspace sleepcasts that I appreciated:

  • Variety: The sleepcasts are available in a wide range of voices and accents, and I appreciated being surprised by a new sleepcaster every night.
  • Detail: These are written and told brilliantly, with just enough detail for the mind to visualize a scene but not enough to begin world-building and problem-solving like you’d find in an audiobook.
  • Opening Exercises: The app’s pre-sleepcast moments of getting the body ready (the breathing exercises and meditations) are very important and really do set the stage for sleep. They’re also easy to remember, and when I don’t feel like listening to a sleepcast, I find myself using one of the exercises anyway.
What I Disliked About Headspace Sleepcasts

If you haven’t caught on yet, I’m a fan of the Headspace sleepcasts and have to scratch my head to come up with a “dislike.” The subscription cost should be noted. But for me, the investment is a worthwhile one considering that Headspace has expanded its content in the past couple of years. (I use both the sleep and morning meditation features.) And if you pay the fee in an annual lump sum, it’s less than $6 per month, which seems like a bargain when I think of how it’s helped my sleep and overall chill-out level.

My Final Thoughts

Although I was a skeptic before trying the Headspace sleepcasts, it took only one night to turn me into a believer. As Ming said, creating habits that cause the brain to prep for sleep can be crucial, but trying to do that on my own can sometimes make me feel anxious or pressured.

Because the sleepcasts require minimal focus and you can drift in and out of them without missing anything, they are a very helpful way to wind down and ease into sleep. Even when I’m feeling at my most wound up from all those what-if scenarios I find myself thinking about in the quieter moments leading up to bedtime, it takes me only about 10 minutes to let all the thoughts go and see what those houseboat cats are doing.

Elizabeth Millard