What is the Purpose of a Bedtime Routine?

A recent survey of 1,500 parents in the UK revealed that parents in the South East read only 1 story at bedtime and 1 in 10 parents put their kids to bed watching a DVD or listening to an audio book. Meanwhile, in the North West, parents read an average of 4 stories.

The numbers aren’t what interest me here. The survey was conducted by Talking Tots, a preschool activity group specializing in building social skills and communication. The respondents were in-house customers and folks participating by e-mail. No margin of error was reported. In other words, it looks unscientific.

But wow, some parents do put their kids to bed watching DVDs.

It begs the question, what is the purpose of a bedtime routine?

Let me shoot some ideas out:

  1. To wind down the day, softening a child’s activity level to prepare for sleep.
  2. To trigger a sleep response by performing the bedtime routine.
  3. To instill an interest in books.
  4. To nurture the social bond between parent and child.

I think it’s all of those things, and the routine should begin in infancy. My 5-month-old son visually tracks page turns and examines storybook images. The shift in focus that a book initiates can take him from a cranky tired mood to a quiet, contemplative one.

An excellent book on the subject is Baby Read-Aloud Basics.

Our routine for our 4-year-old daughter includes two books, one read by each parent. It’s been that way since at least her first birthday. Today, variations include reading only one story if it’s a longer picture book, or two chapters of an older kid "chapter book" such as Charlotte’s Web. In rare instances, we will play a board game.

Our routine includes books for two other reasons:

1) It guarantees a minimal level of exposure to books every day. Hopefully we do more than that during daylight hours.

2) It expands vocabulary and understanding of the world in an exceptionally diverse way that transcends economic levels, parental education levels, transportation limitations, geographic isolation and so forth.

My daughter has never been to Kansas, but she sure knows about fireflies. And by God, as an avid pre-baby caver, I made sure she has several books about bats (cute mice with wings).

Books are wonderful conversation starters. Don’t just read the text. Ask questions and be sure she understands what you’re saying.

It’s a monumental source of pride for me when visitors to our home see our Wall of Awesome. In the four months since writing about our bookshelves, we’ve had to move 5 shelves of board games back into a closet to make way for more children’s books and parenting books (craft projects, activities, home science experiments, etc.).

But you don’t need to be a garage sale book hoarder. Establish a Coffee Table of Awesome in your home. No coffee. Cover the table with library books you check out every week on the same day, as per your new Library Raid and Pillage routine.

Okay, I’ve rambled off-topic again.

DVDs at bedtime… They are bad news for babies, but I’m not opposed to them for older toddlers as occasional daytime entertainment, particularly when a parent participates in the viewing. Heck, this weekend I’ll be selecting a winner for a 100 story DVD collection.

But is the parent-child bonding at bedtime as "good" with DVDs as it is with books? Is that question a product of how I was raised? Will videos be something your grown child looks back upon decades later and remembers about you?

I remember my mother reading me stories. I doubt I’d have fond memories of her clicking ‘play’ on a  DVD or CD player.

Yes? No? What’s your bedtime routine and why? After the bathing and teeth brushing and pajamas, how many books, or DVDs do you bring out? Or do you sing songs or do something else? Why do you do it?

Update: Survey information from Talking Tots:

"What we felt about the findings was that it simply indicated that some busy parents are investing less time in regular bedtime stories, or simply not reading at all with their children. As child development experts, Talking Tots passionately believes in the importance of reading with children, and also believes there are additional social and emotional benefits to be gained from bedtime stories."

Respondents were approached in two ways to participate in the Bedtime Tots survey: we circulated a survey to parents attending Talking Tots classes nationwide, which were conducted in classes and collected by post. We also used Mumsnet and the UK Business forums to invite other parents to take part.

In total, 1,500 parents responded to the survey with a breakdown as follows:

  • North West: 430
  • North East: 278
  • South East: 454
  • Midlands: 254
  • Scotland: 65
  • Ireland: 14
  • Wales: 15

In terms of the children’s ages, the breakdown is as follows:

  • Between 1 and 2: 468
  • Between 2 and 3: 591
  • Between 3 and 4: 430

When we asked how many books children read each night, the breakdown of responses nationally was as follows:

  • 0 books 154
  • 1 book 405
  • 2 book 255
  • 3 books 426
  • 4 books 95
  • 5 books 23
  • More: 42

Regionally, the average number of books read per night was:

  • North West: 3
  • North East: 3
  • South East: 1
  • Midlands: 2
  • Scotland: Sample too small
  • Ireland: Sample too small
  • Wales: Sample too small

When we asked who read the bedtime story, the breakdown of responses nationally was as follows:

  • Mum 670
  • Dad 101
  • Shared 511
  • Someone else: 65


23 Responses to “What is the Purpose of a Bedtime Routine?”

  1. RobMonroe says:

    I must respectfully disagree. My parents read more to me than to my brother at bed time. I hate reading, he is an English teacher and Editor for the Smithsonian.

    We read to our daughter when she comes home from day care. When it’s time for bed, it’s simply a bath, milk and sleep. This might change when she’s older, but I don’t want her to associate books with sleep, like I do.

    The bottom line is that each parental unit should set up whatever routine they think works for them. It’s not for me to judge your book reading or someone else’s DVD time. Did the study make reference to other reading time? One would have to assume that the parents are avoiding books completely.

    September 4th, 2008 at 4:44 am

  2. twinsanity says:

    We usually have 1/2 after dinner before we head upstairs, so we use that time for a quiet activity. We officially start our bedtime routine with a bath, followed by 2 stories (each of our twins picks one), then they brush their teeth and get into their beds. After they are in bedOur girls will be 3 in October. We’ve had some sort of routine in place that included reading to them since they came home from the hospital and my husband read to them in the NICU during their 6 week stay. Our girls look forward to their routine and story time every evening. It certainly helps calm them and helps them sleep.

    Side note: I’ve never been to Kansas either, but there have been fireflies/lightening bugs in every state I’ve lived in. Are there places in the U.S. that DON’T have them?

    September 4th, 2008 at 4:49 am

  3. Thien-Kim says:

    Wow, DVDs. Really? We read to our daughter before bedtime. I comb out the knots of my daughter’s curls while my husband reads to her.

    September 4th, 2008 at 5:14 am

  4. thordora says:

    Crap, my daughter’s entire bedroom is a room of awesome for all the books. It’s insane.

    We read 1-4 books each night, depending on what they are. We read during the day. They’re always at the books, if not outside playing.

    I find it important that they see their parents reading, and that books are left accessible to them, without worry for damage or being left on the floor-although we do talk about this as well and at their current ages, damages better be accidents. My oldest doesn’t want to read yet-and I leave that alone. She wants to learn though, which I find vastly more important.

    Frankly though, with my kids, reading is an exciting alive thing, and doesn’t always wind them down, especially if we’re reading about science or creatures they’ve seen in the backyard.

    My oldest knows many details on many subjects that not all 5 years old might know. But that’s more to her own drive to learn than just a bedtime routine containing a good read.

    But I still can’t imagine putting a child to sleep with the TV like that.

    September 4th, 2008 at 5:36 am

  5. CallMeKelly says:

    I read 6-8 books a night to my 23mo and 4yo boys at that time right before bed when they start getting either wild with last minute energy or a little cranky, then bath and bed. Sounds good I guess, 6-8 books… if you don’t already know that while I was gone on a work trip my DH (SAHD) installed a car DVD system on the boys bunk beds so they both have a monitor (top and bottom bunk) and after all my attempts to follow a routine that reflects my parenting ideals they then go to sleep to the drone of DVD’s.

    September 4th, 2008 at 7:06 am

  6. SarraJK says:

    My son (now 3) has been read stores before bed his whole life. The bedtime routine always ends with a story. We usually only read one before bed (we’re always pressed for time in the evenings), but we don’t limit our reading to bedtime.

    I’m against TV in the bedroom in general, so that’s not going to happen. He watches some TV/DVDs on the weekends, but we generally don’t do TV on weeknights.

    When we built our house, we set aside one room as a library, and we installed built-in shelves along all the walls. We also keep books in his bedroom and the living room. Reading is very important to us as a family, and we’re thrilled that our son has a love of books as well.

    September 4th, 2008 at 7:51 am

  7. Jenni says:

    Bed time routines wind the children down and the consistency let’s the predict at a young age what is going to happen. That combined with the knowledge that children who are read AT LEAST three books a day from birth are more prepared for school and learning to read; reading at bed time is essential.

    Bedtime routines are times to connect and be close. DVD’s do the opposite of that. A book encourages that. I also encourage the wakeup book as well. It’s a perfect way to set the tone to the day. Wake up, read a book, smooth transition to the day; rather than the rush that we put into the morning so many times.

    September 4th, 2008 at 8:00 am

  8. AJ says:

    Rob, how was your relationship with your parents? Another part of bedtime routine for us is our kids getting the undistracted attention of both parents. I’m sorry it didn’t work out for you; maybe your parents were lousy book presenters (yes, it’s possible, our library has one such volunteer).

    My daughter loves it so much that withholding a book at bedtime would be the same as a punishment.

    Twinsanity, from what I understand, fireflies exist primarily in Kansas and eastward.

    September 4th, 2008 at 8:28 am

  9. Jenn says:

    I do read to my little one every night and thankfully we have plently of great books to choose from. We belong to Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library where 1 book each month is mailed to us until my son turns 5. From what I understand this program is available to people outside of TN (If your community supports it)

    September 4th, 2008 at 10:55 am

  10. anastasiav says:

    We read a lot at our house, but I have to say that we, too, have made the conscious choice not to have our son associate reading with sleep.

    We read downstairs after supper, and we often share books snuggled up in bed first thing in the morning. And, this summer, in mid afternoon, while laying in the hammock together.

    I’ve never understood why reading is a “pre-bed” activity. Just because its quiet? At its best, reading a story is an adventure you become involved and invested in. Reading should excite and invigorate the mind of the reader — not a good prep for sleeping, in my view.

    At our house, bedtime is for snuggles, and singing. And sometimes we do put on a CD, a little recorded music to doze off by, especially if there is some loud distracting noise going on downstairs or outside.

    September 4th, 2008 at 11:19 am

  11. PsychMamma says:

    We routinely read one story before bed, or sometimes 2. Just like Little Miss, withholding a book at bedtime would be like punishment – she loves it that much. That being said, we highly value reading in general, and ready throughout the entire day. Books are at accessible levels and locations for J throughout the house (even by her potty), and she frequently asks us to read or just sits down to look through or “read” a book herself (she’s 2).

    We also don’t have TV. She watches one hour of a DVD while she’s on her feeding pump each morning, and, rarely (like when she’s sick), she’ll ask for extra DVD time that we’ll allow.

    BUT, while we stayed with the grandparents for a month this summer, her bedtime routine included snuggling on the couch in her pj’s with her paci and watching “Diego.” She was absolutely enthralled by the show (I credit the focus on animals. She ADORES any animal) and sat perfectly still and quiet. I could visibly see her relaxing and unwinding. When the show ended, she hopped off the sofa and announced it was time to sleep and happily went to bed. Point being that I’m not sure it’s “fair” to say that DVDs do the “opposite” of books or that they excite kids instead of relaxing them. I could see how a routine like this might work at bedtime, but I would mightily hope that reading was being incorporated well into other parts of the day.

    September 4th, 2008 at 11:36 am

  12. Andie says:

    We have always read to our kids as part of the bedtime routine. Reading is followed by quiet “company” time, with the lights out, and some talking or singing before they drift off. As babies/toddlers we read between 3-5 stories depending on the length, 30 minutes or so…and in our house witholding a book at bedtime = punishment…so it can be leverage for cooperation in getting ready on time. Less cooperation = fewer stories. It surprised me the other night when my 9 year old asked for the stories I made up for him when he was a toddler (adventures incorporating his favorite stuffed animals and fire trucks or farm visits)…and now that I modify them to include his sister and her favorite stuffy. Now I read to the younger one while Papa puts the big boy to bed, and even though he can read to himself, he still asks to be read to at bedtime…I should add that Papa is a very animated reader, so its no surprise that he still likes it. Reading rocks!

    September 4th, 2008 at 11:42 am

  13. Jenn says:

    I credit our consistent bedtime routine for having two great sleepers. It’s been the same routine since they were born (now ages 4.5 & 2.5) Bedtime is the same time every night performed by my husband & I together, bath, pjs, brush teeth, comb out snarls, and read 1-3 books (depending on length), sing the same two songs (I’ve tried to change them up, but they insist upon the same ones), then the same goodnight phrase “goodnight, sleep tight, sweet dreams, I love you.” If you leave one thing out, they remind you!

    Then with the 4.5 yo I stay behind in her room, with the lights off & we disect the days events & discuss the next days plans. This is usually when she will open up to me about the “thing” that happened at pre-school that day that she didn’t want to discuss earlier or she’ll divulge a “secret”. I live for these talks and hope they continue as she grows older and the issues grow more intense. Everyone then goes to sleep without even a peep and isn’t heard from until morning.

    Both of my kids still nap 2-3 hours a day & we have a separate routine for that as well, which includes reading a few books. It’s usually on the days we can’t do the routine that they don’t nap as well.

    I hear stories from friends that have kids that insist they lay down next to them until they fall asleep or they have to pace the hall and walk them to sleep or by morning time the kids have taken over their bed and the parents end up in the kids beds and when I ask what their bedtime routine is, the answer is always that there is no routine. They also usually let their young children stay up very late (I’m talking past 10pm) and they don’t seem to think this is affecting their sleep habits.

    I don’t think there is one routine that is better than another, but I do think a consistent routine with an age appropriate bedtime is key to a well rested child, which equals a happy child the next day!

    September 4th, 2008 at 4:59 pm

  14. Mary says:

    For our son, after his bath, brushing his teeth, and changing into pj’s, we do all or some of the following things. When his dad is home in the evening (he works nights), he’ll usually get our son giggling and laughing with tickles and such. He likes it when our son is happy when he goes down for bed. I know it kind of gets him a little riled up, but our son loves it (and Daddy does, too). Once in bed, I sit with him and read him a book or two (sometimes more if they are especially short). When the light goes off, I usually sing him a song or two – his favorites right now are Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star and the ABC song (bummer they have the same beat). Our son has been on a fairly regular routine and a great sleep schedule since infancy. Being in that end toddler stage, beginning preschool stage (he’ll be 3 in December), he occasionally has his nights where he is cranky and fights bedtime. But generally, we good about his routine.

    I think that having a good, regular routine is important. My son has developed a bit of obsessive compulsive habits – kind of. Other than regular routine, he must keep things in their place and in certain order. If it isn’t in the right place, or done the right way, he gets upset. This is partly why we keep our regular routine with him. Also, it is great bonding time, especially on days where I work and haven’t seen him all day.

    Consistent, regular routine has been key to getting good sleep for both our son and for me and my husband. I am very happy that our son doesn’t attempt to sleep in our bed, although, if we’re sleeping in, he’ll come to our bed when he wakes and lay with us for a bit. I agree with Jenn that without a regular routine and an appropriate bedtime, a child will be difficult to put down, wake up more at night, have a higher chance of wanting to be in mommy and daddy’s bed, and may be more irritable.

    September 4th, 2008 at 10:26 pm

  15. Karen says:

    When u say South East do you mean South East Asia? The reason I asked is because in South East Asia you rarely see parents involve with their kids. I know this sounds really bad. I grew up in South East Asia and I never remembered a time when my parents read to us before bed time. Our parents has opposite schedule with us. When is time for school, they are still sleeping and when is our time to go to bed, they are not home yet. Mainly in South East Asia everyone that’s considered to be middle class has servants or Nanny and drivers to take us to school or after school programs. They are our main care giver. When you are not doing well in school, our parents would find us the best tutor to help us in every subject available for tutors. Is a different lifestyle there. I’m not surprised with the survey results. With that said, there’s no way my kids watch DVD to go to sleep. We usually read 2 stories every night. We pick a Bible story and they get to choose another book to read. Though my 2 yrs old are not interested to read but he is still in the room when we read these book. The only book he would read is train related. Reading to them does calms them down before bed time or sometimes we would play Sugarland or The Lady Bug game.

    September 5th, 2008 at 12:26 pm

  16. Jen says:

    Reading is important, no matter the time of day. That being said, I do notice that it does help my daughter unwind. Sometimes she seems a bit keyed up by things that have happened in the day and seems to be turning them over and over in her head, (as evidenced by her many questions regarding the events). If we spend some time talking through the day and then we read a pleasant story, she has that to fall asleep thinking about.

    I think she likes delving into fantasy land before sleeping.

    September 5th, 2008 at 5:06 pm

  17. Erin S. says:

    As a pediatrician I have to say DVD’s in the bedroom are a big NO NO. Watching TV/DVD’s at bedtime disrupts the normal sleep cycle – children take longer to fall asleep and have less restful sleep leading to more daytime sleepiness, crankiness, and tantrums. Also excessive TV watching is one of the biggest suspected contributors to the epidemic of childhood obesity and has been associated with increased problems with attention, aggression, poor self-regulation and delayed language and social skills.

    Bedtime routines are important for children to develop self-regulatory sleep patterns and also are a huge time for parent-child bonding. Book reading at bedtime is not a must (but daily exposure to books is and bedtime is a good time to work this in). Consistency and parent involvement is actually the most important part of a bedtime routine.

    September 6th, 2008 at 11:05 am

  18. Erin S. says:

    Oh, almost forgot…

    My son is 2 1/2 and his routine is pick-up toys, bath, brush teeth, 2-4 books of his choosing, and the cuddling/rocking. He sleeps great with the exception of rolling off his twin mattress on the floor every once in a while and we have very little bedtime resistance. His language is also pretty advanced for his age – he’s been using 4-5 word sentences from about 20 months and now tells stories and uses words like “probably” and “frustrated” to name a few in the appropriate contexts. Whether that’s just him or due to all the reading we do I can’t say.

    September 6th, 2008 at 11:11 am

  19. CanCan (Mom Most Traveled) says:

    Karen, I was thinking the same thing (about South East Asia), but I think the survey applied only to Great Britain. I feel sad for the families I have seen that act the way you describe. Some people think that good “parenting” is providing things for their children with a motorbike as soon as they hit their teens, and buying them lots of junk!

    My baby goes to sleep at 7. We don’t read to him as part of his bedtime routine but we do read. My older son (almost 4) does get 2 books as part of his bedtime routine, and we often do a board game before that. I do try to limit TV before bed (usually we don’t watch after dinner and beyond), but he does watch TV during the day. I don’t have a strict limit on it but sometimes I decide he has had enough for the day. :)

    The older one is hyperactive and wouldn’t even sit still for a book until he was about 2 1/2. I had so many visions of reading with my baby and that went out the window…he wasn’t even cuddly as a newborn! I thought he hated me! He does love books now and retells the stories in his own way as he pretends to ‘read” them back to me. I love it!

    September 7th, 2008 at 10:48 am

  20. Lisa says:

    Off topic: Twinsanity, I have lived in Orlando, FL for the past five years and have yet to see one firefly……….My 3 yr old DS was thrilled to have finally seen them in NJ this past June.

    September 7th, 2008 at 7:02 pm

  21. Vanessa Pruitt says:

    We read books to my 2 year old during the day. He picks up on stuff so well in books. He is learning his opposites from these neat flashcards a friend bought us.

    Otherwise, our bedtime routine usually includes a potty time and a last drink of water, prayers, and a song. We have said the same prayer for months at bedtime and he has it memorized, as well as several songs. If we don’t sing Jesus Loves me or Jesus loves the little children he will burst into song on his own. I guess we are big singers in our house too b/c my son can sing dozens of songs from memory.

    September 10th, 2008 at 6:44 pm

  22. anjii says:

    Our bedtime routine is 1-3 books, (depending on the lengths), some “cards” (the Brain Quest cards you introduced us to here), and a bible story. Then I (or Daddy) turn on his lullaby CD and snuggle for the first song. It’s one of my favorite times of the day with him…

    September 26th, 2008 at 3:22 pm

  23. mom, again says:

    in response to Karen, (above)

    The survey was done in the United Kingdom, the regions mentioned are in reference to Great Britain (Scotland, England, Wales) and Northern Ireland, the countries which make up the UK. The South East is the area just north of, and south of London all the way to the English Channel. Sometimes, London is listed seperately in this sort of thing, but it appears to include London this time.

    September 26th, 2008 at 4:05 pm

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