Bedtime Reading

Reading at bedtime helps children become better dreamers

Why is bedtime a customary time to read stories with children? Even in the days before the printing press, at night, our ancestors would gather around fires and tell stories before falling asleep. Why at that time?

In his now famous studies, Canadian neurologist Wilder Penfield found we humans have a pressing and biological need to dream. Penfield designed an experiment where his research subjects were denied the chance to dream: just at the moment they began to exhibit signs of dreaming (signaled by rapid eye movement or “rem sleep”), they were woken up. The results? When prevented from dreaming, Penfield’s research subjects became confused and psychotic. Indeed, Penfield had planned to conduct his research over a month but after a week, the behavior of the people he was observing became so bizarre and potentially injurious to themselves that he was obliged to break off the experiment.

If we have a biological need to dream, then what is it we need to do when we dream? The answer can be found in, of all places, James Barrie’s Peter Pan. Children’s waking lives, Barrie observes, are full of miscellaneous events: the “first day at school, religion, fathers, the round pond, needle-work, murders, hangings, verbs that take the dative, chocolate pudding day, pulling out your tooth yourself, and so on.” When the young fall asleep and dream, this miscellany is converted into stories — for example, about “coral reefs and rakish-looking craft in the offing, and savages and lonely lairs, and gnomes who are mostly tailors, and caves through which a river runs, and princes with six elder brothers, and a hut fast going to decay, and one very small old lady with a hooked nose.”

We shape that jumble of our lives into more coherent and orderly stories.

Dreams, in other words, are the result of a biological need to make sense of our lives and we do so in two ways. We shape that jumble of our lives into more coherent and orderly stories. And we take up the issues and events of our lives by means of analogies: for example, a child concerned about selfish siblings may dream of dragons guarding treasure chests.

Here is precisely the reason why bedtime is a terrific time to take up stories. Understood in one way, books amount to instructions in dreaming: in their fictional story-making and analogies, they replicate or exemplify what dreamers do. But besides offering models of the technique of story-making, reading at bedtime can also provide the young with ideas, characters, and plots that they can subsequently use when they fall asleep so that their dreams are more vivid and more organized, and thereby more satisfying. Reading at bedtime helps children become better dreamers.

As adults know, we sometimes wake exhausted in the morning after a restless night of jumbled and chaotic dreams; then we didn’t get a “good night’s sleep” At other times, after a night of satisfying dreams where all the loose ends are tied up, we awake refreshed and ready to take on the day. Anyone who has talked with children about their dreams knows that the same is true with them.

This, then, is the reason, why bedtime is a terrific time to take up stories with children. At night, when we dream, we are all more or less creative writers–some good, some bad; some skilled, some amateurish. Reading with children at bedtime helps them become “better writers” when they dream. This effort to make sense of our lives in nocturnal storymaking, Penfield’s experiments demonstrate, is absolutely essential to our health and well being. Reading with children at bedtime helps them do a better job at this and brings those benefits Penfield describes.

One of the striking things about children’s picture books is how often the story takes place at bedtime or concerns falling asleep. (How many adult books can you think of that pay special attention to that moment of our lives or that address, for example, how scary it can be when going to bed by yourself?) Among the very young, my favorite bedtime book remains Goodnight Moon. With the slightly older child, I recommend Randall Jarrell’s haunting Fly by Night which tells the story of David who flies in his dreams and describes what he sees.

Heidi, illustration by Gustaf Tenggren.

Perhaps the best book for older readers on the topic of sleeping and dreaming is Joanna Spyri’s Heidi. When the little girl comes to her grandfather’s alpine cabin, she especially chooses a place to sleep and makes a nest for herself in the hay in grandfather’s attic. There she sleeps contentedly until she is forced to relocate to the city of Frankfurt. Heidi’s troubled time there is revealed by what psychologists call sleep-and-dream disorders: every night she sleepwalks. Fortunately, however, she is returned to her beloved Alps and her grandfather, and once more dozes contentedly in her attic nest.

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