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Sensory Solution: Music for Sleep

I had trouble with sleep for as long as I can remember. As a kid, once I was asleep I would sleep through the night, but actually falling asleep often took hours.

The place I had the easiest time falling asleep was my grandma’s bed, for several reasons. It was softer than my mom’s bed (I didn’t sleep alone until I was 9 or 10, and I’m a big fan of co-sleeping in general for young kids). My grandmother would also put the closet light on for me and leave the closet door open a crack, to serve as a nightlight. This made the whole room feel more peaceful and less threatening. She would also often tell me ghost stories at my request.

But I think the most helpful thing was that my grandmother always listened to music to fall asleep. She would put on the local easy listening station – the kind that plays instrumental versions of popular songs from the 40s and 50s – and that never failed to help me drift off. I think the reason I needed music to sleep was that it gave my mind something to focus on, so I wouldn’t lie awake thinking all night.

I still find music helpful for falling asleep as an adult. Several years ago, I started using Pandora to help me fall asleep. If you haven’t used Pandora, the way it works is you create a station based on a particular artist or song, and then customize the station further by giving each song a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down”. I created my first sleep station based on Enya, and have since created similar stations based on Loreena McKennitt, Adiemus (aka Karl Jenkins), George Winston, Sigur Ros, and Helen Jane Long. All these artists tend toward soft, gentle “new age” music. I also find these stations useful as background music for writing or creating art.

The downsides of Pandora are that the free version has ads and “time-outs” – it turns off after you’re idle for a couple of hours. This may be an advantage for people who prefer a “snooze” function, but I find the time-outs tend to wake me up during the night. You can get rid of the ads and have less frequent time-outs by paying $36 a year for the subscription service, which also includes a desktop app. I haven’t yet felt the need to use the pay service, but if you find it’s the best way to help you or your child get to sleep, it might be worth it. Pandora also has mobile apps for iOS and Android.

Another option is simply to buy CDs or purchase albums off iTunes, Amazon, etc. I’d recommend any of the above artists, although Adiemus and Sigur Ros are a bit more “out there”, so you might want to listen to several of their songs first. If you like soft instrumental piano music, I’d go with George Winston or Helen Jane Long. Loreena McKennitt and Enya do more Celtic-inspired music, often with lyrics. You might also want to try some “world” music, like ‘ud, Native American or shakuhachi flute music, or Gregorian chant. (There are even Gregorian chant versions of Green Day – I’m not kidding.) You can also find “lullaby” CDs designed to help babies fall asleep – they’re good for older kids and grownups too! Some people might find music with lyrics keeps them awake, but others may find it helps them to focus on the music instead of their mental chatter. Try lots of different stuff and see what works for you.

A good way to try different things is to simply get a compilation album of different artists. A few of my favorites:

Finally, if you find music doesn’t work for you but you still need help drifting off to sleep, you might want to try guided meditations or white noise, which I will cover in separate posts.