We’ve all heard the expression about “curling up” with a good book. For the bookworms among us, there’s something relaxing about reading. In fact, for many people, reading can be so calming that it’s actually sleep-inducing. From childhood to adulthood, many people find comfort in the routine of reading before bed. We don’t have a single, undeniable reason why that is, exactly. In fact, experts say it’s likely due to a confluence of factors.
Here’s what makes reading such a helpful part of many people’s sleep routines, plus a few tips for better sleep if you like to read before bed.
1. Reading helps us de-stress.
Reading can be an escape, notes Bruce D. Forman, PhD, a psychologist who specializes in insomnia treatment. “When we read, or when children listen to bedtime stories, our minds drift away from daily stresses and strains, which produces a state of calm.”
One study that compared stress reduction strategies even found that reading was superior to other techniques like walking and listening to music. “It took an average of only six minutes of reading to obtain measurable beneficial results,” Forman adds.
Getting involved in a narrative may also have a meditative effect. “Reading is a time where we can really be present, in the moment, and free from external distractions,” points out Martin Reed, MEd, a certified sleep coach. “This can help us unwind and relax, and create better conditions for sleep. Reading might shift our attention away from stressors that we might be more likely to ruminate about before bed.”
2. Our eyes literally get tired.
Here’s something you might not know: The act of reading itself requires micro-movements in eye muscles. “In time, these muscles fatigue, in the same way muscles tire during physical exercise,'' Forman explains. Eventually, our eyes close and we doze off. So, while doing physical exercise too close to bedtime isn’t recommended, giving your eyes a workout right before bed seems to be helpful.
3. Many of us associate positive feelings with reading.
If you frequently heard bedtime stories as a child, that might influence how you feel about reading before bed as an adult. “Bedtime stories offer an opportunity to escape and let thoughts and fantasies fill our consciousness,” Forman says. “Being read to by a parent, babysitter, or older sibling enhances emotional bonding and meets the need to be nurtured.” Eventually, we form an association between bedtime reading and feeling loved. “Reading sparks nostalgia for these good feelings and positive memories well into adulthood,” Forman adds.
4. Habitual reading may be a trigger for sleep.
If you’re wondering why you can barely make it through a page or two before you pass out, this might be part of the answer. Habits can be powerful. When we learn reading is what happens right before sleep, well, our brain knows just what to do when our book comes out. Forman himself established this habit in college. “For me, and many others, reading before bedtime is just the thing needed to bring on sleep,” he adds.
How to make the most of your bedtime story
If you’re a nighttime reader, you might be wondering if there’s anything you can do to ensure you sleep well. As it happens, experts have some advice for ensuring your reading habits don't interfere with getting a good night’s rest.
1. Choose your material carefully.
Right before bed might not be the best time to read something you find upsetting. “What we read can influence our arousal system, so reading content we know from experience we find relaxing and enjoyable can be helpful,” Reed advises. In other words, you might want to save that super-creepy thriller you’re paging through for the daytime.
2. Don’t force it.
If you frequently have a hard time falling asleep, reading before bed might not be the best strategy for you, Forman says. For those dealing with insomnia, it’s important to reserve your bed for two activities: sleep and sex. “That means no TV, no devices, no reading, and no worrying.”
3. Feel free to use your tablet or phone.
If you don’t have any major sleep issues, then don’t worry too much about reading on a digital device. “Even though there’s a lot of advice warning against using electronic devices before bed because of the influence of blue light on sleep, studies have reached mixed conclusions here,” Reed says.
In fact, one study suggested that as long as you get enough exposure to light during the day, reading on a tablet at night doesn't lead to any differences in sleep compared to those who read a physical book. So Reed’s advice? If you want to read on something with a screen, that’s perfectly fine. And if you’re still concerned, you can always turn on “night mode” if your device has it, or invest in a $10 pair of blue light filtering glasses, Forman says.