3 Guidelines for Bedtime Reading

3 Guidelines for Bedtime Reading | Marcy Axness, PhD

I’m here for you, Nicolle Wallace of The View, who says there aren’t any guidelines out there for choosing what to read to your baby!

The gals were discussing the “hot topic” of this newly-published fun fact: Chelsea Clinton reads the news to her infant daughter every morning. There seemed to be a consensus among them that it’s appropriate to shelter the wee ones from the harsh realities of our world — and I completely agree. Whether it’s an intentional choice or not — young children’s exposure to adult news and conversation is typically inadvertent and “accidental” — the young brain & psyche simply aren’t equipped to process foreign affairs, environmental brinksmanship and other front-page fare.

With an avalanche of so-called children’s books to choose from, three simple guidelines can help parents decide which bedtime reading fare will best serve their child.

And definitely DO read to your baby, and don’t stop… well… ever! Research reveals that fewer and fewer parents share bedtime reading with their children. More than one-third of parents in one study don’t do any bedtime reading with their kids. Whether it’s due to time-crunch, life stress or (as reported by almost half the study’s parents) that their children prefer television, toys or computer games, dropping bedtime reading creates a loss with potential lifelong repercussions.

My bedtime reading guidelines simplify things to help nurture and protect your evening routine.

I’ll keep this brief, because frankly, I think one of the culprits in this erosion of bedtime reading is the sheer overload of information and choices parents are faced with. How many books, which books, how to choose, when to squeeze it in … ayyyeeeeee!!!

My 3 rules are different from the standard, same-old-same-old you can find in dizzying quantities on the internet, such as the importance of not just reading but also interacting with your child about the meaning of the story, for example. (In fact, that inspires my Guideline #3, because there is a pitfall in that recommendation!)

RulesReadingI used to call these “rules,” which comes off a bit strict. In a distinction made funny & famous in the movie Pirates of the Caribbean, they’re not so much rules as guidelines — to leverage the most possible raising-a-peacemaker bang for your reading buck.

Guideline #1: Choose Beauty, Reverence & Wonder

There is a mind-numbingly massive selection of so-called children’s literature out there, and my first 2 rules will help you cut through the glut in making your choices of which books to share with your child. Even lists like “50 Books Every Parent Should Read to Their Child” contain some titles that don’t meet my Rule #1 criteria, which is this: The book must feature beauty (as opposed to just cleverness) in the illustrations, especially in the depiction of the human form. So many children’s illustrations portray people in caricatured, exaggerated and even grotesque ways, which has a subtly discouraging effect upon a child’s psyche.

Also, the story and its illustrations should draw on wonder, imagination, and reverence for its subject. (I have written much here on the importance of wonder in the life of the young child.) Countless books that purport to be for children feature overly adult perspectives and tones, such as irony or sarcasm. (Sarcasm is poison to the soul of a young child, who cleaves to goodness, kindness and wonder.)

Remember, whatever you read together before bed are impressions your child will take into his or her sleep and dreams!

Guideline #2: Choose Books You Like

When you read to your child books that you enjoy, your little one will be nurtured by the resonance you feel with the story and illustrations. Also, through the never-to-be-underestimated power of example, if you are forcing yourself to read something that doesn’t appeal to you, you shouldn’t be surprised if not so many years from now your child is resistant to reading!

Guideline #3: Offer Conversation, Not Interrogation

This may be the trickiest on this short list. It will require that you really put some mindfulness into action while reading with your child. While research overwhelmingly demonstrates the value of reading to children, there is a slight catch:

“However, being read to does not by itself automatically lead to literacy. The real link seems to lie in the verbal interaction that occurs between adult and child during story reading (Snow 1996). Since children learn language by actively constructing meaning (Vgotsky 1962; Lindfors 1987), the seeds of literacy lie in the social construction of meaning around print, that is, the talk—“scaffolding,” explaining, clarifying—between the reader and child listener as they look at, point to, and label objects, and discuss print and its meaning.” More…

The key here is to avoid the pitfall of slipping into what I call “interrogation mode” with your child — peppering him with endless questions like a running pop quiz. I remember our R.I.E. teacher explaining that it is the child’s role to ask questions of the parent, not the other way around. But what do we parents so often do? We love to see and hear our child demonstrate her precocious brilliance, so we drill her: “Where’s George?” “What did he put on his head?” “What color is it?”

There are a couple of issues here. First of all, interrogation isn’t the most fruitful approach to interacting with your child at any time or any age, and it can have the opposite effect as you’d like over time: rather than opening up and chatting with you, he may clam up. There’s a subtle disrespect inherent in interrogation mode, and it can erode your child’s trust in you.

While I’m not a fan of the think-of-your-small-child-like-an-adult school of thought, in this case it has merit. Imagine sharing an interesting story with an adult you like and respect. Let’s say you’re reading it at the same time on a computer screen. Could you imagine quizzing them like we do our kids? And what did the senator hold up as he asked that question? Of course not! Instead, you might share an impression or insight or puzzlement you have about the story, and see what they think about it. You might engage in some open-ended dialogue about some of the meanings behind the characters’ actions or what they might have been feeling. That’s the same way we can more richly interact with our children about the books we read with them.

Another issue, though, is that bedtime reading is a time for DE-escalating stimulation, including mental stimulation. The time for engaging in lively discussion over the meaning of stories is sometime else during the day. This depends a lot on your child; some kids have no problem shifting from mental high-gear into readiness for sleep, but I think that’s unusual.

Bedtime reading (in my humble opinion) is more of a slow-paced, dreamy-time mode that serves as your child’s soft gateway to sleep. Books I used for our children’s bedtime reading often had the atmosphere and pacing of a lullaby. Goodnight Moon is of course one of the best examples of this. A lesser-known one that was one of our favorites in this style is The Midnight Farm.

I’d love to hear your thoughts — what feels right for YOU to read your baby or young child at bedtime? Do you make different choices then than during the day?

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9 thoughts on “3 Guidelines for Bedtime Reading”

  1. Thanks for standing up for reading aloud. There is a book called the “Reading Aloud Handbook” that gives great suggestions for old fashioned books with exactly the qualities you mentioned. A bonus is that none of these types of books will tie in to tv shows or computer games that children supposedly prefer, and most can be obtained through your library for free. I found that reading aloud for thirty minutes each night to my two children ( usually separately because they were four years apart) was the most relaxing part of my day! I read aloud WITH my son until he was about fifteen because we loved sharing the same book at the same time. My daughter cut me off a little earlier and I am eagerly awaiting grandchildren so I can start through all those books again.By the way, although I never read the news to my infants I did go through the Chronicles of Narnia while breastfeeding-it seemed to soothe them and I thought it couldn’t hurt!

  2. Reading at bedtime is precious and a sweet time between parent and child. Start them off with easy readers which helps with their memorization skills. While asking thought provoking questions is fine, I think simple questions that give him sense of accomplishment, like asking a kiddo who is learning their colors where is green, is fine too. Most of all, enjoy the time. Soon it will be them reading their own books – to themselves!

  3. What a great article. I’ll never forget the memories of bedtime stories growing up. Being read to is a beautiful thing. I think children and adults at anytime enjoy the art of storytelling, especially by a loved one when you drift off to dream land. Each step sticks with me. Depending on the age, my favourite bedtime stories are “I took the moon for a walk” and “The princes bedtime” published by Barefoot Books at http://www.dianabarefootbooks.com

  4. So true, these are the same thoughts that went through my head while reading to my kids, only much better developed. I had not stopped to analyze it much, but books always had to be beautiful and full of wonder, not educational! I also think we are so programmed to make sure our little ones grow well educated, that we ruin a perfectly educative moment (learning to love the wonder of literature) by educating too much while we are at it (what color, how many do you see?) I always fought that temptation and rather listened to what my kid had to say about the picture, because they do have a lot to say, and most of it is not impressive 🙂 but it’s their imagination and soo important 😉
    The first book I read to my son was a dr. Seuss board book with silhouettes. he was 1 month old and was totally giddy about ether the pictures or the poetry. now he is 9 and devours over comics, science books and poetry… which I’m only learning to appreciate through him

    1. I really appreciate your lovely comments, Sissi. Love that your son’s poetry appreciation is spreading to you. Isn’t it enchanting when WE learn from our CHILDREN??

  5. Can you give us a list of some of your favourite stories to read to children? i am always looking for excellent beautiful suggestions. Thank you

    1. Sorry, Missy, for my delay in responding! I’ve had every good intention to go into my garage and look through the one carton of VERY favorite books I’ve kept from my kids’ young years for them to have if/when they become parents — so I could give you a decent supply of specific titles. My memory isn’t my best quality, lol. I haven’t done that yet, but really didn’t want to keep you waiting any longer! For now, along with such classics as “Goodnight Moon” here are a few I can remember: “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?”, “Grandfather Twilight” and “The Midnight Farm.” The latter is one of my all-time favorites, and as per your request, it is lusciously beautiful and SO soothing for bedtime. Perhaps I can add a few more titles to this list if I get a chance to go excavating, lol!

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