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The BrainFood Books Blog is primarily about reading and its role in child development.

If you are a parent, teacher or home educator; or are interested in reading or writing for children; you'll find loads of interesting tips on how to use books to engage young minds, along with book reviews and recommendations.



Why do we need sleep?

During sleep your brain makes connections that help you process and remember new information; therefore, lack of sleep causes both short-term and long-term memory issues. Your concentration, creativity and problem-solving skills, balance and immune system are all effected when you aren't getting enough sleep.

As an aside, I recently discovered that the reason we eat more when we're tired, is because at an evolutionary level, lack of sleep indicates to the brain that we are in danger and we crave sugary carbs to give us the burst of energy we will surely need to run away from that danger!

Add into this melting pot the physical strain of just growing, and you have children who are irritable, unable to concentrate, easily emotional and overwhelmed, clumsy, sickly and craving snacks - sound familiar?

A healthy sleep routine

We live in a world of sensory overload; that isn't just the use of screens, it's the sound and smell of traffic, billboards, flashing lights, sirens, perfume, disinfectant - I could go on.

A child’s brain must first learn to recognise sights, smells, tastes and feelings before it can filter the things that we take for granted and ignore; that’s a lot of work, and all this BEFORE they actually get to school!

The brain needs some sensory cues to let it know that it's about to go to sleep. I've been asked by my friend Dr David Lee of Sleep Unlimited to put the word out that food before bedtime is a huge NO! NO!

Food is anything that isn't water; the minute you add sugar in the form of a snack, juice, squash or the very worst - milk, the digestive system starts up and gets to work delaying the brain's ability to settle into the sleep cycle, of which there are four stages. The third stage is the one that makes you wake up refreshed, so delay getting to sleep, combined with the same wake-up time means you easily miss some or all of stages three and four.

Watching a screen of any kind, is the equivalent of flashing a torch on and off at your eyes for however long you watch it - beware the spaced-out look, it's not your child getting sleepy, it has more to do with visual stimulus.

After dinner activities should follow a slow wind down of sensory stimulation: No more food or drink (water is OK); homework before screen time; bathe using the same fragrance (non-stimulating is better); then into bed.

A bedtime story

A bedtime story is the quickest and healthiest way to get your child to sleep. What we're aiming for is for the brain to recognise that all its needs have been met: Are we hungry? Are we thirsty? Are we warm? Are we comfy? Are we safe?

If you've followed the slow wind down, then the first two questions are ticked.


Is the bedroom the right temperature for sleeping? Sixteen to eighteen degrees is optimal, so check the weight of duvets as well as the thermostat.

Being comfy is as much about not being distracted; we all know that anything playing on our mind whether it's a worry or an idea makes getting to sleep much more difficult. So, finding ourselves all snuggled up with one of the people we most love and trust in the world is an ideal time to talk. Checking in with your child’s mental health at this point is a good thing, providing there’s nothing big wrong – more on that topic to come in later blogs.

So, now is the time to settle into sleep with a bedtime story, but there’s more going on here than a bit of reading:


  1. The familiar smell of a loved-one is very comforting.

  2. The closeness makes a child feel safe.

  3. The sound of your voice is also reassuring – if I close my eyes and relax, I know you’re still by my side.

  4. If chosen well, the bedtime story adds the gentle rhythm of language which, like a lullaby has a soothing effect.

  5. The bedtime story should have a safe resolution i.e. certainly at the beginning of sleep ‘training’ you don’t want a story that stimulates questions or laughter, adventures in the night while everyone is asleep or the fact that not being able to sleep is a possibility; you’re looking for something that reinforces the brain cues.


Bedtime story recommendations


The Snuggle Sandwich by Malachy Doyle

I love you to the Moon and Back by Amelia Hepworth

My Little Star by Mark Sperring

I’ll Never Let You Go by Smriti Prasadam-Halls

Guess How Much I Love You? by Sam McBratney


Next Week: Settling Busy Minds at Bedtime

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© 2020 Sarah Mackie in conjunction with Caxton Bell Publishing