We know that bedtime reading can be an enjoyable, cozy experience. That’s why many of us have made it a staple of our bedtime routine. But what you might not realize is that it’s not just a nice way to bond and create memories. Reading to your kids has many tangible benefits. It promotes literacy, healthy child development, encourages lifelong reading and literacy habits, and, yes, even helps kids sleep better. We caught up with some experts in the fields to help us understand the many benefits of bedtime reading, along with tips for making bedtime reading a habit.
Benefits of reading a bedtime story to your kids
“Establishing a bedtime routine that includes reading books and telling stories is a wonderful way to promote parent-child bonding while helping develop children’s literacy, language, and social-emotional skills,” says Dr. Leora Mogilner, associate professor of pediatrics at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, NY, and director of Reach Out and Read. An added bonus? Bedtime reading helps kids sleep better.
Let’s take a look at a few of the main benefits of reading to our kids before bed:
If there’s one thing parents want more than anything, it’s to have kids who fall asleep easily — and stay asleep. For many kids, being read to before bed can do just this. “There is research showing that in preschoolers, a bedtime story may help them to sleep longer and better,” says Jade Wu, a behavioral sleep medicine psychologist and Sleep.com advisor. Additionally, as she points out, there’s evidence that kids with a bedtime routine involving reading are less likely to resist bedtime. So, reading to your child before bed may help with those challenging bedtime “battles.”
As Dr. Leah Alexander, pediatrician and consultant for Mom Loves Best, explains, reading at bedtime is a great way for children and teens to “wind down” before sleep and give their brains a rest after a day of learning and socializing. One advantage of reading a physical book rather than relying on a screen for nighttime wind-downs is that books don’t emit blue light, which can suppress melatonin, Alexander points out. Kids need adequate amounts of melatonin to feel sleepy and regulate their sleep-wake cycle.
Life can be hectic, and although we all want to make sure we bond with our children on a daily basis, it doesn’t always happen. Daily reading time with your child requires you to slow down, be physically close with your child, and be fully present and available. “The cuddling and snuggling that take place with bedtime reading promote parent-child bonding and lets children know that they are loved and cared for,” says Mogilner.
Wu says, “Reading with your child at bedtime can be a powerful part of a bedtime routine that improves bonding.” Moreover, the bonding that reading promotes before bed applies to the many different types of family units out there, according to Wu.
“There is research to show that foster children, for example, can settle into a new home placement better if their foster parents take the time to bond and make them feel safe or comfortable during the bedtime routine,” Wu shares. The research, which looked at 485 foster caregivers in the U.S., found that having a bedtime routine that was calming, consistent, and — most importantly — infused with comfort and love was the most impactful way to get foster kids to sleep. And one of the best ways to offer love and connection to foster kids, according to Wu? The simple act of reading them a nightly bedtime story.
There’s a ton of evidence that nighttime reading promotes early literacy. For instance, research from the 2017 Pediatric Academic Societies Meeting found that reading to kids when they are babies impacts a child’s reading and vocabulary skills a whole four years later when they are ready to start school.
Sydney Bassard, a speech-language therapist specializing in literacy, says that reading to children helps develop their vocabularies and hone their print knowledge skills, which include letter name and letter sound recognition. “Print knowledge and oral language skills are foundational for when kids go to develop reading skills later on,” Bassard explains. How best to ensure these skills are developed? “In reading a bedtime story, you can point out the pictures, showcase the differences between words and pictures, discuss the story, and teach them about how reading works,” Bassard explains.
The bond that happens during nighttime reading helps nurture a child’s social-emotional growth and development. “Reading stories and sharing books together are effective ways to enhance the positive interactions between parents and children, which form the cornerstone of the safe, stable, nurturing relationships (SSNR’s) that are so crucial for the development of a child’s social-emotional health,” Mogilner describes.
There is also abundant evidence that bedtime reading improves aspects of cognitive development. For example, a 2015 study published in Pediatrics found that reading during the preschool years was associated with activating areas in the brain responsible for mental imagery and narrative compression — both are important for language and cognitive development.
Benefits of independent bedtime reading
What about when kids get older and can read on their own or no longer want mommy and daddy to read to them? Experts say that independent reading is something to encourage in your older kids. Just like reading to little ones, independent reading time has numerous benefits.
“Reading at bedtime is as vital for older children and adolescents as it is for younger children,” says Alexander. It enables them to further develop their language skills and increase their knowledge base. Not only that, but it can provide a much-needed respite from social media, school requirements, packed schedules, and other life stressors, she says. There’s also evidence that bedtime reading protects against mental health challenges such as anxiety, she adds.
Independent bedtime reading doesn’t just promote enduring literacy skills, but it can also help foster good sleeping habits. “In general, having quiet independent reading time is a great bedtime routine to take into adolescence and adulthood because this can be a lifelong cue for the body and brain to transition from a busy day to relaxation and sleepiness,” Wu says.
How to implement a bedtime book routine
All the experts we spoke to have the same message about establishing a bedtime reading routine: Start early!
“I started reading bedtime stories to my kids as newborns even though they clearly didn't understand anything yet,” Wu shares. Babies and kids are more open to reading than parents might think, especially if you make it fun. Wu recommends letting your little ones pick out books they’re curious about at the library and choose the ones they want to read at bedtime. “Make it interactive, do funny voices, and ask them what they think about the story,” she suggests.
As for when to transition to independent reading in older kids, it really depends on the child, says Mogilner. One way to transition a child is to participate in shared reading with a parent, taking turns reading pages and discussing stories as you read. Another suggestion from Mogilner is to set aside a certain amount of time for shared reading and then encourage the child to read on their own after the parent says goodnight.
“This enables the parent and child to continue to bond over books and share special time together while also encouraging independence and growth as the child reads on his or her own,” she says.
Troubleshooting tips: what to do if…
So here’s the million-dollar question: How can parents manage the roadblocks that inevitably come up when it comes to bedtime reading? You know, things like resistant children, having a jam-packed schedule, and phones and tablets taking over at bedtime. Here are what our experts said:
Your kid doesn’t like reading
If your kids seem resistant to reading, it’s all about making reading more fun and relatable. “It can be helpful to read a story or book that is tied into an activity that your child did during the day or about an upcoming event that they are looking forward to,” Bassard suggests.
Screens have become an addiction
The reality is that many kids of all ages are glued to screens, Alexander says. “They are such an integral part of our lives that it takes effort to disconnect from them,” she says. The solution is setting some house rules for screens, especially at night. Mogilner says that screens should be shut down about an hour before bed.
Your schedule is jam-packed
As for making time for reading when you have a busy schedule, Wu says it’s all about coming up with creative solutions. This may look like soliciting help from another adult to take care of household chores and other children while you focus on reading to your child. You can also keep in mind that even just a few minutes of reading goes a long way. “Remember that you do not have to finish the book or story,” Bassard reminds. “Even if you get a few pages in, you’re doing great.”
The bottom line? When it comes to bedtime reading, it’s super important that parents cut themselves some slack, do their best, and try not to worry about making things perfect. Simply making a commitment to reading to your kids before bed and then showing up for it is where it’s at.