I’m not much of a reader. In fact, there was a 10-year period during which I wrote more books (four) than I read. In high school and college, I can’t recall ever finishing an assigned novel or play. I would read just enough to create the desired illusion. Even now that I have more time, I’m good for about 20 minutes before I have to put a book down and do something … anything. If my feet are level with my waist, four pages is my max before sleep overtakes me.
But I could be the poster boy for the value of reading to young children. My father was a great reader. At heart he was an actor, and I could listen to his theatrical voice read for hours. I was still being read to regularly until I was 8 or 9 years old. I am convinced that it was his gift for reading aloud when I was young that helped me develop a facility with language that was crucial to my academic successes. It certainly wasn’t my own reading.
Two recent studies have added to the growing body of evidence that reading to young children is critical to their later language development and success in school (“Home Reading Environment and Brain Activation in Preschool Children Listening to Stories,” by Hutton et al. [ Pediatrics. 2015 Aug 10. pii: peds.2015-0359. Epub ahead of print ] and “The Words Children Hear: Picture Books and the Statistics for Language Learning,” by Montag, Jones, and Smith [ Psychol Sci. Aug 4, 2015. doi: 10.1177/0956797615594361. E-pub ahead of print ]). Parents in your practice have probably not read either of these peer-reviewed studies, but they may have read the New York Times and an op-ed by pediatrician Perri Klass, in which she emphasizes the importance of reading ( Bed Time Stories for Young Brains, August 17, 2015 ). They have received free books at your office and know that you recommend they read to their children every day.
Many of those parents who have bought into the value of reading also understand the importance of a good night’s sleep. But for some of those families, those two priorities can collide when it comes time for the warm and fuzzy tradition of reading a bedtime story.
Work schedules and other family obligations may have pushed their young child’s bedtime to the brink of and beyond a healthy hour. Adding a bedtime story – and we all know there is seldom just one story – will only compound the problem. Which is more important … a bedtime story or a healthy bedtime?
Of course if we are talking about a single isolated night, the answer is obvious … do both. But I’m talking about the family that is overbooked and always running late. On a “good” night, bedtime ritual for the 2-year-old may start at 7:30 p.m. Adding a story will push start time to a clearly unhealthy 8:00. As a physician long obsessed with the underappreciated and at times catastrophic effects of sleep deprivation, my answer would clearly be forget the bedtime story and turn off the light.
But families need not allow themselves to fall into situations that force such a binary decision of reading or not reading a bedtime story. In some cases, it is an adult-centered decision by one parent who selfishly expects his or her child to be kept up until the parent can be home to participate in the bedtime ritual. In other cases, instead of building the day’s schedule around a healthy bedtime, some families treat bedtime as an afterthought, something they will get to when they can get around to it.
In addition to enhancing a child’s language development, reading stories at bedtime can be a bonding and family-building activity. Reading also can be a calming ingredient and a sleep-enhancing component in an effective bedtime ritual. And for the child who resists bedtime, reading can be used a reward that can be withheld or increased as the situation requires.
While I sense that the practice of saying one’s prayers at bedtime has fallen out of fashion for many families, the bedtime story is alive and well. We must help remind parents that the bedtime is at least as important as the story.
Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “Coping with a Picky Eater” and “Is My Child Overtired?: The Sleep Solution for Raising Happier, Healthier Children.” Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org .