Mission Impossible: Establishing a bedtime reading routine

I love reading to my children: especially at night.  After they have had their funny five minutes of jumping on the bed or fighting with their sibling, I quietly tuck them in and wait patiently for the ceremonious silence to wash over the crowded room like a tumultuous wave. I am fully aware of my audience’s eagerness.  Before the book, which sits firmly in the clasp of my warm hands, is cracked open, I am irrefutably conscious of the undivided attention placed on me. Little faces light up as the hush of silence is finally broken by the sound of my voice spilling words from classic tales such as Matilda, Anne of Green Gables and The Secret Garden.  The nightlight that dimly glows in the distance provides the perfect setting for the literary stage that I have been summoned to perform almost every night for the past four years with many an encore piece granted and denied. As I draw my final breath to expel the last read word of the evening, I can almost hear my children drifting silently into a peaceful slumber: guided by the magical words of one of the greatest books ever written.

Sounds idyllic doesn’t it?  Don’t kid yourself.  It was hell for the first year and after a grueling campaign to get my children on board a bedtime reading routine, the spoils of victory are well and truly deserved.  Are my children angelic in every way and is this flawlessly presented image some sort of a twisted attempt to showcase their perfection?  No way.  My children are no different to everyone else’s and the same overtiredness and late night scenarios that plague every home during what I fondly refer to as ‘the witching hour’ was alive and well in my humble abode for longer than I care to remember.  So exactly how did I tame the situation you say?  Allow me to explain. When trying to establish a routine, reading or otherwise, here are a few tried and tested pointers to steer you in the right direction.

  1. Don’t shoot for the moon.  Expectations almost always lead to disappointment.  Accept that you will face resistance and/or curiosity in the beginning but make it your resolution not to give up.  Like everything new, it will be treated with skepticism and/or interest; both of which will manifest themselves in all sorts of weird and wonderful ways. Keep it short and sweet and eventually you will get to a stage where you will be able to get through a good few pages or an entire chapter in one go.   
  2. Keep calm and carry on.  No parent needs to be reminded just how short their child's attention span is.  Watching your child roll hysetrically around the bed in the stop, drop and roll fire position is not as uncommon you think.  Nightime brings with it a whole host of actions and moods that can test the patience of a saint.  It is all too common for young children to want to walk over to see what you have in your hand or try out a new yoga position and by all means let them carry on; but do not continue to read until they are back in bed.  By not saying anything, you will be saying a lot.  Some may giggle, others may sing and you may even hear the not-so-encouraging words: ‘this is boring,’ but don’t be dejected from the task at hand.  Remember that you are trying to establish a routine and this will take time.  Even if you manage to get in only one small sentence, consider it is a success because it is one sentence more than you read to them the night before. 
  3. Make sure the book you have chosen is age appropriate.  For younger children, the simpler the storyline, the better. I am sure most parents are aware of their children’s favorite character be it a princess or a tank engine and the books related to these characters have words young children can understand and themes they can relate to. Reading books like, The Tale of Despereaux, to most three or four year old is like reading 'War and Peace' to your infant.  All will be lost in the translation.  By keeping it simple, the odds are younger children will be more inclined to understand and look forward to their night time read; and that's really what you want to be achieving here. For school aged children, the sky’s the limit.  There is an unending repertoire of books ranging from the contemporary Harry Potter series to the traditional tales of C.S. Lewis.  Discovering books can sometimes be just as exciting as reading them.  With a little effort and a lot of enthusiasm, you will find yourself enjoying some of the old classics you either never got around to reading or have simply forgotten over time.
  4. Allow a child to select his/her own book and then stick with it. Children sometimes have a habit of boring with things very quickly; it is, however, important that you try and finish what you start.  By no means interpret this as having to stick to a book a child hates or has absolutely no interest in listening to.  This would make reading an unpleasant experience for both the reader and the listener.  A child can, however, be encouraged to stick with a book if they feel that you would like to know what happens at the end.  I once had my son tell me that he wasn’t going to listen and put his hands over his ears in protest to a story his sisters had selected.  I said that this was fine and that it was okay to do this. By day three, he was listening with the greatest of interest and no mention of the selection of book or his response was ever made again.
  5. Always start and end your reading by paraphrasing.  Even if you only managed to get in one sentence from the night before, ask your child to summarize what you last read.  After you have finished reading for the evening, try and engage your children in paraphrasing what they have just heard.  Nothing too elaborate.  Just a few sentences will do the trick.
  6. Do not be a slave to the routine.  For those evenings when you are running on zero energy or the children are in meltdown or collapse mode, use your better judgment to determine whether or not a bedtime read is suitable for the situation at hand.  Taking a break here and there will not crush your routine.  Every parent has been privy to the night time chaos that can reek havoc on the most organized of all households so if you simply cannot muster the will to read, take a break and try again the following evening.
  7. Enjoy what you are reading. Rushing through a book because you have other tasks to complete is a pointless exercise.  If you find that you cannot afford more than a few minutes to read to your children, then make sure those few minutes count.  Read with vigor and enjoy what you are reading and I guarantee your children will enjoy it as well.


For the vast majority of families, establishing a bedtime reading routine will not happen overnight.  Like everything else, practice makes perfect and with a few solid pointers to steer you in the right direction, any willing parent can reap the rewards that a calm evening of reading will have on you and your children. 


Peggy Nastat


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