How to Tell a Bedtime Story That Puts Children to Sleep

Bedtime stories can help kids settle down for sleep, but they can’t overcome a calamitous bedtime routine.

by Matthew Utley

The bedtime story is a long-established tradition for many families. It is often (along with unsolicited requests for water and unnecessary bathroom trips) the last recourse for kids trying to escape the clutches of sleep, but, when told properly, stories can help relax children and shorten the path to slumber. For this to happen, books and even freewheeling narratives need to be presented in the context of a soothing bedtime routine, with lights turned down, no electronics nearby, little distraction. After that, it’s all about the reading.

Reading for bedtime is necessarily different than reading for fun and health. Parents should read with their kids as often as possible; it’s how kids learn to love reading and it creates a moment of what sociologists call “shared gaze,” which is great for bonding and information retention. It excites and engages them. But reading for sleep is designed to calm children down. Parents could opt for the neuro-linguist programming of The Rabbit Who Wants to Fall Asleep, but an even, calm delivery can achieve the same result. So, unlike reading for fun, reading for sleep should be an affirming, repetitive experience.

“Stories with too much action or suspense can cause children to become too invested or hyped up. They can even produce anxiety,” says Chris Brantner, a certified sleep science coach. “Not to mention that action-packed stories require the reader to change vocal tones too often, which can kill the calming mood you’re aiming for.”

How to Read a Toddler to Sleep

  • Establish a routine – turn off screens, skip sweets and turn the lights down low before bed.
  • Choose a book without twists or turns, or with low-stakes conflicts that are fully resolved by the end.
  • Read low, slow, and even. The more dramatic or exciting a voice or gesture, the more energetic the child becomes.
  • Avoid LED and other stark “blue” lights for reading; orange lights are much more soothing.

Bedtimes stories that end in cliffhangers, or put the main characters in peril, are probably too exhilarating for bedtime. Low-stakes conflicts and neat resolutions can keep a child interested instead of bored, but not so excited that it’s counterproductive.

A slow, even tone – just this side of sonorous – can help a child relax. (If you want to figure out how to do this from the masters, look up ASMR videos on YouTube. Scientists have not yet proven that ASMR is a real phenomenon, but the videos are inarguably calming.) The entire process should be geared for low energy. Excited hand gestures or facial reactions can be as stimulating as an excited tone of voice. Even the kind of lighting parents use to read can affect bedtime. LED reading lights are too harsh and too blue; in addition to being bright and stimulating, they can inhibit melatonin production and make it more difficult to fall asleep. Orange light is much better to condition the body for sleep, and it’s okay to turn the lights down low – not so low that it’s a strain to read the pages, but low enough to maintain that atmosphere of relaxation.

The whole point of a bedtime routine is, well, the routine. From birth, kids learn what to expect from bedtime and sleep, and any deviation is interesting, if not downright stressful. Repetition is comforting, and comfortable kids sleep better. Just like singing a lullaby to a baby, a story for a toddler should be familiar and soothing.

“Routines are key for children,” says Bratner. “When they know what to expect, they will be more likely to behave accordingly.”