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Why bedtime stories are good for your health

wo young children sitting on the statue of story writer Hans Christian Andersen (Getty)

In our disconnected world, the act of reading out loud makes all the difference

The Enchanted Hour
by Meghan Cox Gurdon
Piatkus, 304pp, £13.99/$26.99

My earliest memory is of my mother laying a rug over our kitchen table and inviting my brother and me to crawl into the makeshift cave. Once we were settled, wide-eyed and excited, she would read to us about the Little Mermaid, or the Ugly Duckling, or the Little Match Girl. For us, it was Hans Christian Andersen; for you, it might have been Beatrix Potter, Enid Blyton or Allan and Janet Ahlberg. The effect will have been the same: a shared moment when children can achieve grown-up feats, exotic lands are around the corner and the elderly and frail are no longer limited by age or health.

Reading out loud allows reader and audience to share the magical realism of storytelling.

In our disconnected world, where in the street, as at the kitchen table, people focus on the smartphone pressed to their ear rather than on one another, reading out loud is also a way to build and rebuild relationships.

For Meghan Cox Gurdon, reading to her five children for an hour a day when they were growing up was family time, but with purpose – a gentle, indirect way for this Catholic mother to form her children’s values and attitudes. Studies bear out her theory: children’s behaviour improves, their empathy extends and their attention spans increase when they’ve been read to. They fare better at school, and beyond.

Gurdon cites extraordinary research conducted at Georgetown University on 20 babies. One little girl, born at 25 weeks, had been kept in an incubator because of complications. When the researchers filled the incubator with the sound of her mother’s voice reading out loud, the baby “shot to alertness (and began) groping around inside her incubator”. No one, it seems, is too young to hear her mother’s voice.

But it is not only our young who benefit: reading has been found to lengthen people’s lives by two years. When Albert Einstein’s sister Maja suffered a stroke in her mid-sixties, the great scientist read to her daily from the Ancient Greeks: Sophocles, Aeschylus, Thucydides. Reading may not be a panacea, but it is certainly a consolation.

In The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje’s wounded hero is in tremendous pain – but finds solace in a young nurse’s reading Kipling to him: “The act of reading together secures people to one another, creating order and connections.” What better antidote to the epidemic of loneliness that affects so many elderly people today?

Surprisingly, the connection is forged even when the listener is too frail and elderly to know what is happening: reading to dementia patients has been found to stimulate memories and imagination.

A sadder statistic, however, shows how much progress needs to be made before we can benefit from reading together: only 17 per cent of American parents with children aged 9 to 11 read out loud to them, even though 83 per cent of children between 6 and 17 say that being read to is something they loved, or liked a lot. The reason is simple, as American children surveyed in 2016 explained: reading time was wonderful because it was time with their parents.

Gurdon gives some tips on when and what to read. She and her children have their own favourites: Goodnight Moon, Babar, The Little Prince, Mary Poppins. They found that reading at bedtime was best – “after the chaos of dinner and the maelstrom of getting children bathed, brushed and into pyjamas, to reach the story hour did feel … like crawling onto a life raft”.

When she is asked if the reading routine interfered with her social life, Gurdon has a subversive answer: yes, it did – “it does take sacrifice, there’s no getting round it”.

I could almost see the selfie generation choking on the concept of putting someone else’s needs above their own. There can be no better way to show how reading out loud is all about relationships.