“The end,” you read, closing the book, a quiet desperation begging for this to be the last book before these kiddos are fast asleep. Your dreams come crashing down when you realize they are still far from their own dream lands. Jumping on the bed, mimicking the book’s hero as one shouts, “I think I can, I think I can,” with the other begging to make invitations for her next party, your kids are amped up and nowhere near quietly sleeping so you can have a few moments of you-time.
I thought books were supposed to help kids fall asleep, you think to yourself, wondering why this trick doesn’t seem to work on your kids. I mean, it works on you. Anytime you pull out a book to read, you’re fast asleep. In fact, you might have even nodded off during this last reading for your kids...
You call your children back to your lap and pull another book off the shelf. Surely The Magic School Bus will do the trick. Right? RIGHT?!
Why Your Bedtime Storytime is Keeping Your Kids Awake
Here’s the truth: reading before bedtime has the powerful potential of lulling kids to sleep.
Notice the word potential. That's because it’s not magic, it’s strategy. The wrong book at the wrong time can actually energize and engage your child’s brain and body, sending them into a world of creativity, action, and adrenaline instead of that much longed for sleeeeeeeeeeeeeep.
All high quality stories engage the human brain unlike any other experience. It’s incredible. We want stories that develop resilience, instill critical thinking, and support the development of our children. But sometimes those plot-driven, action-oriented stories provoke their young minds and increase energy rather than reduce it. Those books have an extremely important place in our world… and it’s usually not bedtime.
Bedtime requires quiet stories--the stories that many publishers reject and bookstores tuck away into their special category on the back shelves. Books with all of the plot twists and action sell best because they light up our brains. We love lit up brains!
But lit up brains have a hard time sleeping. We need to balance our bookshelves with quiet stories to flood our minds with stress-reducing endorphins so we can go to sleep.
If you’re choosing to read highly engaging stories before bedtime, you can expect to have children with highly engaged minds who can’t fall asleep.
The book does matter!
The Power of the Perfect Bedtime Story
Imagine this: You read the final words, “The end.” You look over expecting to hear, “again, again!” but instead, your sweeties are fast asleep. Don’t they look so innocent and enjoyable when they’re asleep? You lean over and kiss foreheads, welling with emotion at the gift these kids are. You quietly pick yourself up, turn off the light, and head into a quiet house just waiting for you to take in deep breaths of you-time.
That’s the power of the perfect bedtime story.
A well-timed, intentional story can actually support your bedtime efforts rather than sabotage them. Reading any story directs all of your energy, attention, and thoughts toward the story and away from the rest of the activities of the day (or the future or the past). This can be helpful at any time of day. However, at bedtime, we want to direct all of our energy toward something calming, quieting, and soothing. Not every story offers us this kind of redirection. Stories that engage our interest yet lead us to a calming place are the perfect kind of bedtime story.
Reading also reduces stress! And who doesn’t sleep better with less stress? Studies have shown that reading for even six minutes can reduce stress up to sixty-eight percent. Not only does reading reduce so much stress, but it does so even better than listening to music, drinking tea, or going for a walk. Reading the perfect story for bedtime not only redirects all of your child’s energy toward calm and relaxation, but reduces their stress levels significantly better than a variety of other activities.
Here’s what makes the perfect bedtime story:
The story must still be engaging, fascinating, or intriguing. This is what captures the brain’s attention and gets it to focus on the story. Quiet is not synonymous with boring.
A bedtime book has depth and beauty and layers of understanding.
A good bedtime book will cause your child to focus inwardly and slow down.
Bedtime stories pull us from our hectic day and usher us into a peaceful state.
Bedtime stories alter your child’s physical experience with the present moment.
The Body, The Brain, and NOW
Wait, what? Did I just say your child’s physiology is altered? Yes, yes I did.
Did you know that your body experiences what your brain thinks, no matter whether it’s reflecting on the past or future, as though it’s happening now? When you remember past experiences, your body feels it again now. When you leap into the future and envision possibilities, your body feels it now. This is why some believe affirmations are so effective (or dangerous, depending on the article). Choosing to say you believe something (that you might actually struggle to believe) gives your body an experience of actual belief! It’s powerful, for good and for harm.
When you read stories to your children, you give their physical bodies an experience with the story. If you choose to read a story that’s high energy and fast-paced, their physical bodies will feel like they’ve just been part of all that energy and survival. When you read stories that are calm and soothing, their bodies experience the relaxation and serenity of the story.
Guess what else? This doesn’t only work on them--it works on us too!
Don’t Know Where to Start? We’ve Got 8 Books to Get You Going
The more quiet bedtime books have been around forever. In fact, they used to be among the norm! But as society changed and entertainment for children became fast-paced, immediately-gratifying, and pleasure-driven, the pleasure center of their brains has become harder to please.
Harder, but not impossible.
With intentionality, you can choose high quality books that support your bedtime goals for kids (and yourself!) This becomes more effective when you reduce the amount of “noise” that the rest of entertainment and media bring into your home, preserving quiet, slow, and reflective spaces. While not every bedtime story is a “quiet” story, I find the best ones often are.
Below are eight of my favorite go-to stories for bedtime. These are a combination of classics and newbies, well-known authors and debut authors, about bedtime and not about bedtime. I hope you enjoy them as I do. *These are Amazon Affiliate links*
Bedtime (or naptime!) can be among our sweetest moments with our kids. We all slow down together and reconnect after lots of daily tasks and movement. The physical and emotional connection that bedtime moments have the opportunity to bring are some of the greatest bricks in the foundation of your lifelong relationship together. It’s worth making it the best experience you can by utilizing routines, limiting distraction, and being intentional with the time leading up to, during, and post bedtime.
Books can help your kids fall asleep or amp them up, sabotaging your bedtime goals. The perfect bedtime books have a quieter plotline, are sweet, and usher your child’s energy toward calm and focus, even reducing your child’s stress! The perfect bedtime book will also physiologically convince your child that they are ready to sleep. It’s worth choosing the right kind of story to enhance those sweet bedtime moments of lifelong connection. Well, and so you can finally have a minute alone.
Diane Arnold, M. (2013). In defense of quiet books or still Waters Run Deep. THE CHILDREN'S BOOK ACADEMY. Retrieved October 22, 2021, from https://www.childrensbookacademy.com/blogonauts/marsha-diane-arnold-writes-about-in-defense-of-quiet-books-or-still-waters-run-deep.
GRACE Communications Foundation. (2021, October 7). Reading fiction for stress relief. The Monday Campaigns. Retrieved October 22, 2021, from https://www.mondaycampaigns.org/destress-monday/reading-fiction-stress-relief.
Sleep Advisor. (2021, October 12). Reading before bed - what are the benefits of this activity? Sleep Advisor. Retrieved October 22, 2021, from https://www.sleepadvisor.org/reading-before-bed/.