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how reading in bed helps sleep - image of book in bed

5 Reasons You Should Pick Up a Book Before Bed

Welcome back to our regular series with certified sleep educator Terry Cralle, MS, RN. In this post, Cralle outlines the benefits of reading before bed and what to read to unwind at night.

Do you read books as part of your bedtime routine—or do you stare at screens until you pass out? If you aren’t a “librocubicularist” (someone who reads from bed, that is), you might want to consider becoming one—especially if you crave better sleep.

A 2009 study from researchers at the University of Sussex found that six minutes of reading reduced stress by 68%, clearing the mind and preparing the body for sleep by slowing the heart rate and easing muscle tension. The study also demonstrated that reading was better at reducing stress levels than listening to music, more effective than drinking a cup of tea, and even exceeded the relaxing effects of going for a walk.

5 reasons why reading in bed may help you sleep

While the benefits of reading to children at bedtime are widely known, bedtime reading for adults also provides benefits that contribute to that good night’s sleep many of us so desperately need but too often fail to obtain. Here’s why:

  1. Reading is a non-screen activity.
  2. Reading is distracting.
  3. Reading can quiet your thoughts.
  4. Reading is physically undemanding.
  5. Reading can be done in bed.

In the words of Dr. J. Todd Arnedt, director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at the University of Michigan Medical School, “It’s not that reading triggers something in the brain—it’s just that [reading is] a quiet, sedentary sort of situation where the existing sleepiness…exerts itself.” (Anyone who’s ever fallen asleep with a book in their lap can surely attest to that!)

What to read in bed for better sleep

Some may find themselves falling asleep soon after reading a few pages, while others can go on for hours (at the cost of possible insomnia brought on due to a stimulated imagination). Listen to your body—and if you want better sleep, adjust your reading habits and reading material accordingly.

Obviously, some types of books are better than others when it comes to falling asleep. Here are the pros and cons of different genres:

  • Fiction: Reading a novel has added benefits, such as providing a mental escape, increasing empathy, building vocabulary, boosting creativity, increasing happiness, and keeping your mind sharp as you age. That being said, you may want to avoid psychological thrillers and page-turners before bedtime.
  • Nonfiction: Recipe books, travel guides, your favorite clothing or decorating catalogs—these are the best options to keep on the bedside table. Steer clear of self-help books, though, lest you find yourself inspired to organize your closet, do some abdominal crunches, or create a vision board when falling asleep is your goal.
  • Children’s books: The books that we loved as children may trigger happy and calm memories that contribute to the right frame of mind for sleep. Winnie the Pooh, A Wrinkle in Time, Charlotte’s Web, The Little Prince, and Alice in Wonderland are but a few that can take us back to simpler and happier times. Fantasy is good for distraction—try the Harry Potter books or Wizard’s First Rule by Terry Goodkind.
  • Literary classics: Just thinking about them may make your eyelids grow heavy. Think classics you may have had to read in college: Ulysses, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce (one reader described the latter as “chloroform”), or Great Expectations, which I’ve seen described as “literary Nyquil.”
  • Short stories: These are perfect for those who want to escape into a story without having to stay up all night to finish it. Consider Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri, How to Catch a Frog by Heather Ross, any of James Herriot’s animal stories, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Monroe, or Kiss Kiss by Roald Dahl.
  • Poetry: Another option that is shorter than fiction and easier to process. The Poetry of Robert Frost and One Minute till Bedtime: 60-Second Poems to Send You Off to Sleep by Kenn Nesbitt are frequently recommended. So is Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, a collection of advice letters by Cheryl Strayed.
  • Adult bedtime stories: Described as “rich and comforting,” Ben Holden’s Bedtime Stories for Grown-ups anthology of more than 70 short stories, poems, fairy tales, and bedtime classics—from William Shakespeare to B.J. Novak and from Charles Dickens to Neil Gaiman—is for grown-ups who want to unwind, unplug, and slip into soothing stories that will send them off to slumberland.
  • Books designed to put you to sleep: Of course, there’s also a book entitled This Book Will Send You to Sleep. Published in 2018, it’s described as “intentionally boring.” Goodreads keeps a running list of the most boring books.

The best lighting for reading in bed

For reading in bed, skip the overhead light or bright task lamp (and forget that candle!). Instead, use a small book light, which clips onto the book you’re reading and aims a concentrated stream of light onto the pages. These have the added benefit of keeping your bed partner in the dark. In terms of wattage, the National Sleep Foundation recommends keeping it at or below 50 to 60 watts.

So-called smart bulbs, booklights, and reading lights are available in an amber hue that filters out blue light (the spectrum of light that interferes with melatonin). According to the National Sleep Foundation, red wavelengths of light are most conducive to sleep.

What about e-readers, you ask? Doesn’t using one of them count as reading in bed? In a 2014 study from researchers at Harvard, 12 healthy young adults read either a printed book or a light-emitting e-book for four hours before bedtime. The study subjects who read an e-book took about 10 minutes longer to fall asleep and said they were less sleepy an hour before bedtime than those reading a printed book.

The bottom line: If you haven’t read a good old-fashioned printed book in a while, turn off your screens and curl up with one tonight and see where it takes you. You might end up pleasantly surprised that you’ve recaptured the enjoyment that came from childhood bedtime reading, not to mention get a better night’s sleep.

More from Terry Cralle:

Terry Cralle, MS, RN, is a certified clinical sleep educator and Saatva's sleep consultant. She is the author of Snoozby and the Great Big Bedtime Battle, the first nonfiction book directly messaging the benefits of sufficient sleep to young children, and Sleeping Your Way to the Top, the ultimate guide to success through better sleep. A nationally recognized sleep health and wellness advocate, her work in the field of sleep medicine has ranged from patient care to clinical research and continuing education for nurses.