Forget warm sheep and counting milk (or is that the other way around?), when it comes to sending our little ones off to the Land of Nod there’s nothing better than a bedtime book. But what is it exactly that makes a good bedtime book? Should it be a prose-only zone or is rhyming more restful? Bright colours or sleepy shades? Pop-up books or tranquil tales?
As part of Happy Beds' campaign to celebrate World Book Day, I spoke to a group of experts, from parents and authors to child therapists, to find out exactly what makes the perfect bedtime book.
Making it Short and Sweet
One of the first things that many members of our panel mentioned was the perfect length.
Although this can be dependent on age, most of our experts agreed that shorter was sweeter; “We don’t want something that can be read and finished in two minutes,” says Rachael Robinson (right), parent blogger at Lukeosaurus and Me and mum to four-year-old Luke. “We need something that sucks Luke in and piques his interest, but I don’t want to still be reading after fifteen minutes!
"It needs to be exciting enough that Luke is interested and keen to find out what happens next, but short enough that the resolution and end of the story comes around before he gets bored and starts faffing. After all, the whole point of a bedtime story is to get your children into a calm state of mind.”
Melanie Fraser of Fraser’s Fun House agrees: “I think a bedtime story needs to be fairly short as your child is (hopefully!) tired and their attention span probably won’t last longer than ten minutes.”
This five-to-ten minute sweet spot was also backed up by the professionals. Therapist Anna Rowe, creator of the Sleep Sleep Sleep Now relaxation CDs for children and babies, says that this magic number gives little ones time to relax, snuggle and drift off to sleep, a thought echoed by Samantha Bertish, author of the Zuma the Dog series. She said that each of her books takes five to ten minutes to read through: “With experience with my son this was always the right amount of time to get him settled, relaxed, and ready for sleep.”
Enticing with Rhyme and Repetition
Next up were two Rs that were considered very important for our bairns’ R&R. “My favourite stories to read out loud are ones that rhyme,” says Emily-Jane Clark, comedy writer and author of the for-parents book
Sleep is for the Weak. “Rhyming words are lovely and soothing when getting ready for bed and I often find myself yawning too,” says That’s The Way It Is mum blogger Nicola Emmett.
“We’re big fans of rhyming stories in our house,” agrees Amanda Overend, owner of online children’s bookstore Books & Pieces and mum to three bookworms. “Well-written rhyming stories are definitely easier to read, and at bedtime they can take on a lullaby quality which is perfect for helping little ones get ready for sleep.”
The key, according to psychotherapist Geraldine Joaquim of Quest Hypnotherapy, is the language patterns that help to move the brain from a state of wakefulness into a deep relaxation – something at which both rhyming and repetitive language are particularly effective.
“The pattern of language is important,” she says. “Gentle and rhythmic is wonderful for lulling the child.” Anna Rowe agrees: “Repetition is important and interesting for the child as they are listening to sounds and words, making connections, and predicting what’s going to come next in the story. This can comfort children and will help in a better sleep.”
Making it Inter(not too)active
All of our experts agreed that bedtime books needed to be engaging but the level of interactivity preferred seemed to differ. “The key with a bedtime book is not to pick anything that is too noisy or interactive,” says Amanda Overend. “The last thing you want is a wired-up, wide awake child before bed.”
The answer here lies in finding age-appropriate stories. Younger minds in particular, says Anna Rowe, often enjoy being part of the story, which is why personalised books are so popular. “There are many companies which offer personalised books; children love stories where the main character has the same name as them.”
If you haven’t got a personalised book to hand, don’t be afraid to use your imagination either! “I have two daughters and I try to avoid the old fashioned fairy tales about princesses needing to be rescued by a prince,” says Emily-Jane Clark. “If I have to read them I always adapt them - for example, Cinderella didn't ask the Fairy Godmother to 'go to the ball' but for her own house and a business loan so she could launch her own cleaning company.”
When choosing between book or screen, our experts were unanimous. “In recent times screens seem to have taken the place that books once occupied as part of the evening routine,” says Melanie Fraser. “For me personally nothing beats a story to settle kids down at bedtime to help them relax into a restful sleep.”
“It has to be a printed book, not an electronic one!” says Melanie Notaras, mum-of-three and author of the customisable book series My School Adventure (below). “Printed books concentrate the eye and mind on the story, and kids can learn through tactile impression as they trace their fingers over pictures and words.”
Counting down to Sleepy Town
When it comes to themes and topics which best-aided sleep, one in particular stood out: “The classic (and often the best) bedtime stories are ones that provide a countdown to bed,” says Melanie Notaras. “I think this is a wonderful format and in a pile of picture book bedtime stories, I always read this type last as the cue to sleep.”
“My children love stories that end with the characters going to bed,” says Melanie Fraser. “One of their favourite books is Sleep Tight, Sleepy Bears by Margaret Wise Brown. It’s such a relaxing story I often feel ready for bed after reading it!”
Amanda Overend agrees: “For younger children, storybooks about bedtime are a great way to help them get used to the bedtime routine; one of the most popular bedtime stories I sell is Goodnight Tiptoe – a Tilly and Friends tale about getting ready for bed.”
Geraldine Joaquim says that the popularity of countdown books again comes down to neurolinguistics: “When working with children and their parents I often tell them about the benefits of guided imagery as a form of bedtime story. One of my favourites is using stairs to climb, counting from one to ten and using each step as a metaphor for getting more relaxed and sleepy - climbing the stairs to ‘Bedfordshire’, boarding a ship to ‘Sleepyland’, anything along those lines is great. Using words life ‘drifting’, ‘floating’, ‘feeling warm and comfortable’, ‘relaxed’, ‘sleepy’, and repeating these words lulls the brain into that sleepy state.”
Lastly, our experts all agreed that the ending of the tale had to be a happy one. “For me the perfect bedtime story needs to have a calming theme without any scary characters,” says Melanie Fraser. “Remember that’s the last thing your child will remember before they close their eyes to go to sleep - a happy ending is always a winner!”
“I would avoid books that have any scary undertones, like getting lost or monsters at bedtime. Anything that might give him bad dreams,” agrees Nicola Emmett, while Anna Rowe recommends books that end with a cuddle or an ‘I love you’: “This is a lovely way for children to drift off to sleep feeling loved and happy themselves.”
The Best Time of the Day
All of our experts agreed that the most important thing a bedtime book does is bring together parent and child for some special bonding time before sleep.
“The bedtime story is a lovely part of the day, a time for bonding between parent and child, helping them get ready to transition into sleep,” says Geraldine Joaquim.
“My books are written for my son with bedtime in mind,” says Samantha Bertish, “They bring parent and child together as they work to solve a simple puzzle and rhyme, singing the words together.”
“For me that reading time before bed is a special bonding time,” says Melanie Fraser. “Slowing things down for the day, having a cuddle, and sharing a story regardless of how busy the day has been!”
“Ultimately, the best bedtime books are ones that parents and their children can enjoy together,” says Amanda Overend. “A big part of a story is its delivery, and if parents aren’t really feeling the book, you can be pretty sure your little people won’t be either.”
“Aside from the nightly pleas of 'just one more' or when they choose a book you really hate and make you read it again and again and again - it is my favourite time of the day!” says Emily-Jane Clark.
“The best part of my day is storytime – in bed, snuggled up with my kids under the blankets with a book,” says Melanie Notaras. “Bedtime stories should be an intrinsic part of the night time routine. The warmth and the snuggling is a special time for parents and children to bond and experience stories together, and for children to learn the way they love best: through the voices of their parents. It’s a great way to develop the reading habit, which sets them up for educational success and a lifetime of joy.”
What Shall We Read Tonight?
It seems then that the perfect bedtime book is a Goldilocks blend of not-too-long and not-too-short, engaging but not overstimulating, that’s fun for both parents and children to read, and that will help your little ones board the train to Bedfordshire carrying only the happiest of thoughts in their brain luggage.
Sound too good to be true? Not so! We conducted exclusive research to find out once and for all which is the most popular bedtime book.