Ever scroll on your phone for “just a few minutes” before bed, only to stay up hours later than you meant to? Yeah, us too. Let’s take back bedtime with a healthy and calming new habit of reading to sleep! We talked to some of our authors about their evening winddown routines, so take a page out of their books and make tonight a little calmer.
After the children have been tucked in, my wife Michelle and I retire to the library where we each make our reading selections for the evening. After sunset, it’s usually biography or memoir for her, whereas I tend to favor story collections or poetry at night. Michelle selects the music while I pour the drinks, and once settled we read in silence until one of us feels moved enough to share a passage aloud, which is when the fun begins–
Just kidding. Would be nice, though.
The truth is, I have two bedtime routines. The bad version involves the remote control and Scotch and then brushing my teeth while reading news on the phone. Then I’ll switch over to an e-book and read until I literally fall asleep with the device in my hand. Literally everything you’re not supposed to do before bed.
The good version is pretty good, though. Yes, there’s still some TV watching. But then it goes off and I play the piano for half an hour. Then I browse my shelves or nightstand to see what I feel like reading for a bit. I still check the news on my phone while brushing (that’s the same in both routines), but in this version I manage to put my phone away and dip into a short story or essay or novel for another half hour. I always sleep better in this version, and sometimes even wake up with an interesting thought. I should do the good version more.
Check out Charles Yu‘s book, Interior Chinatown.
I love incorporating rituals into my days in order to keep me rooted. Through my training as a psychiatrist, I’ve learned that having a bedtime ritual can send a signal to my brain that it’s time to start shutting down for the night. My bedtime ritual includes a skincare regimen, reading an inspiring book—A Promised Land by Barack Obama is my current favorite—and journaling.
There’s something about taking the thoughts in my mind and making them tangible on a page that allows me to process and reflect. Since 2020 has brought so many changes, I’ve found that my bedtime ritual is a way to take time for myself and restore for the next day.
Check out Saumya Dave‘s book, Well-Behaved Indian Women
My bedtime routine centers around a delicious gardenia-scented candle. It’s my favorite scent, and something about lighting it makes me feel calm, centered, and focused. I might pull out a beautiful journal – I love to jot down my favorite quotes in a special journal. It really makes a difference! And I’m always going to read a bedtime story (or three) to my two girls.
Check out Hoda Kotb‘s book, This Just Speaks to Me
Though I don’t get to read as much as I did in my youth (when I could read all day because my parents were paying the bills), I do look forward to reading before bed each night. Whether it’s a few pages or a few chapters, it feels like catching up with friends—extremely cool ones who experience things I never will.
To make sure I sleep well, I always leave my phone recharging in the kitchen—no alerts or pings to call me back when I retire. Backed against a pile of pillows, I’ll read some science fiction, fantasy, or mystery (I read horror too, but only when the sun is shining). It’s often not long before the story has replaced my own cares with others, and I get to be concerned—pleasantly—about someone else’s problems. (Pleasantly because I know it’ll be all right in the end; a comforting thought that lets me relax—and tomorrow’s worries can wait their turn.)
One of the delights of reading before I sleep is that I occasionally rediscover a word that I haven’t seen or heard in years, and then I look forward to using it somehow the next day, which makes me sincerely believe that the future will be bright. Just recently I ran across “bumptious” and it definitely made my day—and the next. I wound up using it in my copy edits for my next book (Paper & Blood), since I have a character fond of alliteration who would describe a ruckus as a “bumptious brouhaha.”
Once in a while a story is so gripping that I lose sleep, but it’s always worth it when that happens. Most often, though, my eyelids droop after ten to twenty pages, and it’s slumber, ahoy! Happy, restful reading, friends.
Check out Kevin Hearne‘s book, Paper & Blood
As a person who used to wear their lack of sleep as a badge of honor, creating a bedtime routine has been crucial to me taking care of myself and being productive. As soon as my kids go to sleep, I check my email and social media for the final time before putting my phone away for the night. To wind down, I take a bath with my favorite bubbles and do my nighttime skincare routine—the thing that makes me feel the most like an adult. In bed, I used to read on my phone, but the screen keeps me up longer so I bought a reading light and I read until my eyelids can’t take it any longer. Right now I’m reading You Were There Too by Colleen Oakley and the only problem with it is it’s so hard to stop reading each night!
Check out Alexa Martin‘s book, Snapped
Having written a Sleeping Beauty retelling, I sometimes wish I had a magical spindle that would grant me instantaneous, deep slumber (though perhaps not for a stretch of one hundred years). Instead, I have to make do with a good wind-down routine.
If I don’t get a good night of sleep, I’m useless the next day. My bedtime routine often begins with a cup of calming tea (Yogi’s stress relief is a favorite), and a tactile activity like knitting while streaming a show—I’m currently obsessed with Pose. The repetitive motion of knitting is soothing, which keeps my mind from wandering to anxious thoughts.
When it’s time for sleep, I make sure to heavily moisturize (we can’t all wake up as fresh and flawless as Princess Aurora after a century-long nap). I’m incredibly noise-sensitive, and so I turn on both a white noise machine and a box fan, and wear earplugs. Before I pull on my eye mask (basically, I wish I could sleep in a sensory deprivation chamber), I put my phone in my drawer until the next day to keep myself from doom-scrolling, and pick up a print book. Right now, it’s The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern—which my librarian heart adores! And then I read until the book smacks me in the face because I’ve dropped it while dozing (which happens embarrassingly often).
As I sometimes struggle with insomnia, one key thing that I’ve learned is that if I have trouble falling or staying asleep, it’s best not to look at my phone—or any clock. Knowing how the hours are crawling along only keeps me awake. On particularly bad nights, I surrender and read more. If I never fall asleep, at least I got a good story out of the night!
Check out Heather Walter’s book, Malice
My bedtime routine begins with four adorable, if unruly, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, all of whom insist on sleeping on the same pillow, namely mine. And though I love/hate my phone, I use its evil powers for good at night and listen to an audiobook before sleep. I love being told a bedtime story, even though I’m allegedly an adult, and there’s something so comforting about turning off the lights, closing my eyes, and just listening.
At night I prefer memoir or self-help, because it’s someone telling you their personal story, or basic truths that help you navigate life better. Right now I’m loving Brené Brown’s Braving the Wilderness, and her calming wisdom goes down easy late at night, when I’m in the perfect state of mind to listen. I think the dogs are benefiting, too. If I can’t train them, maybe Brené can.
Check out Lisa Scottoline‘s book, Eternal
Quotes about sleep/reading before bed:
- “Sleeping is a modern superpower. Stories are old magic.”
- “You need to give your mind someplace to rest.”
- “The thinking mind is a bit like a truck with a brick on the gas pedal. It keeps going even when no one is there to steer it, and it’ll race all night if it’s allowed to.”
I sometimes joke that I sleep like it’s my job (show up on time, put in a solid eight hours, and don’t take breaks) but of course knowing a bit about how to wind down at the end of the day is absolutely my job as a writer and teller of bedtime stories. Having a ritual around bedtime can help you stay on track (rather than slipping down a rabbit hole on Twitter and scrolling until midnight) and an easy way to build a routine is to piggy-back on already established habits. For me, that starts with something as simple as brushing my teeth. That habit is strong and since I know it will happen every single night, I can attach another habit I want to build onto it. That’s how I finally established a skin care routine before bed. It only takes a few minutes but because it’s a way to care for myself, it’s meaningful and I take my time going through the steps.
Then I get into bed and if there is anything still racing through my mind, I pull out a notepad and just download any thoughts or unfinished business. Knowing that they exist on piece of paper somewhere, helps me to let go of them. Then I reach for my book. In the last couple of weeks I’ve read Moonflower Murders by Anthony Horowitz, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwabb and reread Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield. I often re-read favorites at bedtime, that way suspense doesn’t keep me up and I get to revisit books I love. I use a book lamp that clamps onto my book so that we can turn the lights off and we negotiate with the dogs for bed space. Usually I’m out within a few minutes. If I wake in the middle of the night, I steer my brain into some bit of comforting familiar territory. I think through the steps for making coffee in my Italian coffee pot for example, or the path from Lake Michigan into the dunes that I’ve walked a thousand times. That little bit of focus lifts the needle off the record in my mind and I slip right back into sleep.
Check out Kathryn Nicolai‘s book, Nothing Much Happens