When I was in graduate school studying to become a psychologist — long before I developed a professional interest in sleep — I returned to the ritual of the bedtime story. I had never before been so stressed. I was never finished with my work — there was always more that I could or should be doing. I couldn’t unwind at night and I had started talking in my sleep.
Reading before bed wasn’t particularly appealing. I was reading all the time for school. But at some point I picked up a novel at bedtime. I didn’t quite understand why, but reading before bed gave me a sense of calm and carried me away from the mountainous to-do lists, lurking insecurities, and borderline-obsessive planning that would otherwise flood my mind as soon as I lay down. I was able to fall asleep in a mindset separate from the stress of the day. And it helped.
What I realized later, as I delved into the field of sleep as a professional, was that I had unknowingly tapped into a deeply conditioned response to reading at bedtime. Years of being read to by my parents followed by years of reading to them as I got older had trained me — like Pavlov’s dog — to associate bedtime reading with comfort, calm, security, and sleepiness.
Bedtime routines teach children to relax and get the sleep they need. But new parents often go overboard, convinced that lengthy and elaborate routines are necessary. In The Good Sleeper, I reassure parents that their babies will sleep just as well and become just as successful as adults if they do not get a bath and essential oil massage on a nightly basis. There’s just one critical part of the routine: reading.
Reading to kids at bedtime serves many functions. Language and literacy development are obvious benefits. But reading also gives kids a time for physical closeness with parents, which serves as a sort of emotional security check-in. It gives older kids an opportunity to soften their defenses and talk about things that might be troubling them. Bedtime reading also provides a point of focus and distraction, away from the day’s activities and frustrations, allowing the body’s fatigue to take over and bring the child closer to sleep. Even in young babies, this point of focus helps them to filter out the stimulating world around them and relax.
Because bedtime reading happens when the child is tired and relaxed, it becomes associated with those feelings. Over time, bedtime reading actually triggers and enhances the sleepiness and relaxation because of that association. With repetition, bedtime reading becomes a very powerful sleep cue.
And, as I learned in graduate school, bedtime reading works wonders for adults, too. Many of the adults I see in my practice have abandoned the bedtime routine of their youth, thinking it no longer necessary. Yet they struggle with rumination at bedtime, poor-quality sleep, and often rely on sleep medication. Solving these issues requires an individualized treatment plan. But, more often than not, my first recommendation is to return to reading at bedtime — preferably fiction — to occupy the mind away from the day’s activities and frustrations and allow the body’s fatigue to take over.