Tom Loney has three little fairies flitting in and out of his study on a Thursday morning, relentlessly demanding magic wands because, after all, what are fairies who can’t cast spells?

It’s just a regular day filled with the magic of parenting in the life of the father of three – his daughters are masquerading around the house dressed in handmade costumes as the mythical creatures he introduced them to through a bedtime story the previous night.

‘My wife Kim and I read them a story about fairies having a tea party, so that’s what the girls want to be this morning,’ explains Tom with a laugh of his daughter Esmée, seven, and four-year-old twins India and Zaria.

The Loney girls’ playtime is often populated by make-believe worlds filled with goblins and princesses and exotic animals, out-of-the-box plots, inventive props and elaborate role-playing. It’s an imaginative and creative way of life that has been shaped and guided by their love of bedtime stories – a habit their parents Tom and Kim introduced them to as soon as the girls were brought home from the hospital as infants. Over the years, the cradles have been dismantled into cribs that were then switched for beds, while the stories have followed suit, leaping from colourful illustrations of touch-and-feel picture books to more text-heavy short stories. As long as a tale caps the tail-end of their day, the Loney girls are a bunch of happy campers.

‘Bedtime stories are so entrenched in their routine, it’s impossible to get them to sleep without one no matter how late it is or how tired we are,’ 37-year-old Tom says.

It’s a demand Tom and Kim willingly yield to every night, having themselves grown up on a staple diet of Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton tales. Their love of reading is an heirloom they’ve passed on to the girls and the Loneys wouldn’t have it any other way. ‘I look back fondly on bedtime stories my mother read me. In both mine and my wife’s families all the children have always had bedtime stories,’ Tom, an associate professor at Mohammed Bin Rashid University, fondly recalls.

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The girls are lucky to have parents who read to them enthusiastically every single night – only 4 per cent of parents with children aged four to 10 read a bedtime story to their child, according to a 2015 survey by Settle Stories.

Short stories with deep impacts

But it’s not lights out yet for the beloved family ritual, according to the 2019 Kids and Family Reading Report by children’s book publisher Scholastic. It cites a marked increase in the number of parents reading aloud to their kids. Experts in the UAE, too, are encouraging parents to keep the habit alive for a gamut of reasons that range from improved language skills to emotional and mental well-being. Sounds like quite a tall order for a simplistic fairy-tale, right? Wrong, says Dr Saliha Afridi who considers bedtime reading one of the single most important activity for parents and caregivers.

‘Research shows that reading enhances a child’s phonological awareness – their recognition of words, sounds and syllables, and it also teaches them to sit still, focus and concentrate and hold information in their short-term memory. All these require executive functioning skills which are being developed and strengthened as you read [to them]. The neurons that fire together, wire together,’ explains the clinical psychologist at The Lighthouse Arabia Center for Wellbeing.

Tom and Kim introduced the reading habit as soon as the girls were brought home from the hospital as infants. The Loney girls are now a bunch of happy campers, as long as a tale caps the tail-end of their day

Tom would agree. He sees the benefits of reading in his daughters’ school reports. ‘All three of them have reading and writing scores that exceed what the average scores of their peers in the UK is.’

The girls’ spoken English too, say their proud dad, is of a high standard for their age, which means they’re articulate and descriptive when they speak. As for Esmée, the eldest, she is already developing a distinct writing style – a skill that children older to her take years to master, he adds.

This clearly proves that reading aloud at bedtime isn’t something to be sniffed at. It’s what’s ensured Filipino national Kismette Riguerra’s four-year-old son Alonso is fluent in both Tagalog and English. Mind you, the little one is yet to start nursery. ‘I didn’t formally teach him phonetics or the alphabet, he just picked it up naturally as a part of me reading to him since he was 10 months old,’ says the 36-year-old special educator from Abu Dhabi.

If Tom and Kismette’s experiences are a yardstick to measure the benefits of reading aloud to kids, you’d not be wrong to want to read out loud to your tots at all times of day. But why restrict such a remarkable instructive tool to the wee hours of night alone?

For working mothers like Cinderella John, bedtime – when she is free from gadgets, the demands of work as a procurement head and running a house – is the only time of day that allows her to bond with her 17-month-old son Arthur (fondly called Archie). Story time sees the Indian national snuggle next to her baby and shut off the rest of the world. ‘After he’s ready for bed, my husband Laji and I cuddle up with him and read aloud. Archie recognises now that book time equals family time,’ the 30-year-old says. It’s also his cue to nod off into a slumber of sweet dreams.

Cinderella effectively used Archie’s bedtime books to initiate his sleep routine while they were on a family vacation in Denmark, despite the time difference and new surroundings, which otherwise would have upset and unsettled the toddler.

This clever parenting hack is what experts call sleep hygiene. Bedtime stories translate to a time to relax, unwind and connect with parents before sleeping that calms the mind and calms anxiousness, explains Tanya Dharamshi, counselling psychologist at Priory Wellbeing Centre. ‘The one-on-one uninterrupted time with parents is a building block of parent-child trust. Feelings of love, safety warmth and importance that children develop during this shared time is carried and solidified in their memory.’

Building a bond, one story at a time

This ability of bedtime stories to envelop parents and child in a bubble of love and security is the quality that trumps all else for Joanne Jewell, a Dubai-based mum of three. ‘Children love rituals. Bedtimes stories are nightly rituals that allow parents to be fully present for their child both emotionally and physically creating a deep connection and a space where children can talk and ask questions,’ says the parent counsellor who has been helping parents in the UAE for the last 15 years.

That the tales can create a connection between parent and child is clear in the case of Kismette, who uses bedtime stories as keys to unlock Alonso’s inner world and emotions. ‘It’s hard to get information out of a toddler but when we’re reading a book, Alonso relates events in the tale to his day. When a character gets hurt, he might tell me how he got hurt at his karate lesson or he’ll express what made him happy in the day when someone in his book is happy.’

Kismette and Rico Riguerra believe bedtime storytelling has ensured their son Alonso is fluent in English and Tagalog

This rally of information and emotions is what characterises modern-day bedtime stories and sleep. Kids are part of the storytelling process and not just mute absorbers of the tales their parents read out to them. The levels of interaction varies across age groups but all children enthusiastically respond to the storytelling process in their own way.

Storytelling improves articulation

According to Tanya, encouraging children to share their emotions during story telling time, ‘will not only further enhance their ability to experience different emotions and feelings, but it will also provide the opportunity to constructively frame these emotions and feelings and go on to communicate them’.

Little Archie bursts into giggles and babbles when Cinderella sings rhymes and Laji makes funny animal sounds or acts out characters in the book. ‘It’s mostly baby talk, but he reacts to and tries to mimic the phrases we’re reading him. He recognises objects and points them out when we ask him what an apple is or presses the correct button in his musical book when we ask him what a car sounds like.’

The Riguerras take it up a notch – Kismette and Alonso bring out stuffed toys relevant to the story and act out parts.

Tom is besieged with requests of ‘do the voice!’ from his daughters thanks to his expressive reading and setting elaborate descriptive scenes while reading out stories. ‘I’m a huge fan of doing different voices and accents. My wife modulates the tempo and pitch of her voice to the nature of the story and this helps us engage the girls in the story, while teaching them about regional accents and how people from different parts of the world have different voices. These stories open up discussion points.’

Sometimes, those discussions involve Esmée, India and Zaria asking questions about real-world problems such as littering, air pollution and deforestation through stories of fictional characters who lose their habitats and home. At other times, it’s a conversation about values, good habits and morals that these stories promote, such as sharing, honesty and fairness.

Cinderella and Kismette concur on the instructive worth of bedtime stories to gently introduce new habits and make the transition to brushing teeth, toilet training and car safety a tantrum-free experience. ‘The visuals and characters make a concept like car seats and safety belts fun for Alonso,’ Kismette explains. ‘So by the time we actually get to him doing these things he’s mentally prepared and [willing does it on his own].’

Kismette’s gone a step further and fleshed out the potential of fiction to instil empathy and compassion in her son. ‘I want to teach him inclusivity through play, and books like Suhail’s Abu Dhabi Adventure by Michele Ziolkowski which deals with autism helps me teach him about people with determination and that we need to adapt to all the different people in the world.’

Enhancing imagination

The gift of fiction allows children to live vicariously through the character’s emotions and journey, which is why experts recommend exposing kids to stories and reading at an early age. ‘Research has found the same brain networks are engaged when reading fiction as when witnessing a live event,’ says Tanya.

Story time is also a safe space for problem solving, Tanya goes on to explain, and questions are the crux – how do you feel about that? What would you do in that situation? What do you think is going to happen? These are some of the queries that when asked within a story’s imaginary landscape, kindle curiosity in young minds and open up new worlds.

Cinderella and Laji believe that bedtime stories have improved their son Archie’s sleep hygiene
Anas Thacharpadikkal

Baby Archie’s touch-and-feel book called Under The Stars allows Cinderella to introduce him to the night-time world of stars and what the sky looks like at night.

Esmée Loney’s curiosity has led her to poring over encyclopaedias, reading about volcanoes and wildlife from distant continents such as penguins and polar bears on her own. But her mum and dad haven’t stopped reading to her or with her because she’s become an independent reader. In fact, although Esmée and her mum and sisters moved back to England last year, Tom ensures he’s present at bedtime via Botim. ‘I listen in and they can see me. We tried me recording the books I have for them here in the UAE and then they could watch it but it didn’t have the same impact. Spending time with your child is invaluable.’

And the doting dad’s effort is anything but excessive, say experts. It is, in fact, indispensable, vouches Dr Saliha Afridi. ‘[These stories] create healthy attachment with the caregiver because they get undivided attention before bed. Such children feel safe and grounded and grow into confident adults with high-self-esteem.’

Moral of the story? Whatever you’re reading to your kids at night, don’t stop because there’s no age to stop reading to them. You can continue reading to or with them up to the teenage years, says Dr Afridi. Twenty minutes of reading time at night can ensure your kids have not just sweet dreams but a sweet-natured, happy and intelligent personality too.

Here are books the three families we talked to recommend

Variety is the key to building a great library for your kids say the parents we spoke to. ‘We need to read our kids a wide genre of books because you never know what will actually interest them,’ says Cinderella John who reads son Archie everything from alphabets and rhymes to bestsellers such as We’re Going Bear Hunting. Tom Loney ensures books are age-appropriate so his seven-year-old isn’t bored by the books her five-year-old sisters read. Kismette Riguerra tries and ensures titles by local authors make it to her son’s reading list to help him better understand UAE’s customs and culture. And don’t turn your noses on fairytales, says Dr Saliha Afridi. ‘Einstein said ‘if you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.’

• The Foot Book by Dr. Seuss

• All Around Us by Eric Carle

• Tony’s Garbage Truck by Dar Al-Majani

• Potty Hero by Jane Massey

• Suhail’s Abu Dhabi Adventure by Michele Ziolkowski

• Peppa at the Museum

• PJ Masks Big Birthday Cake Rescue

• The Tiger Who Came to Tea by Judith Kerr

• The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson

• American Girl books

• Pajama time by Sandra Boyton

• We Are Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen

• That’s not my Lamb by Fiona Watt

Tips on cultivating a reading habit

• Read to kids as soon as they can pick up a book, says Tanya Dharamshi. Toddlers can use picture books, tactile books and interactive audio books. Reading aloud to babies encourages bonding and you can see them respond by moving their arms and legs as your reading speed and rhythm changes.

• Make-up stories to promote imagination! When parents and kids construct a story together it’s an expression of joint creativity, explains Tanya. Moreover, make-believe stories based on their own life experiences helps children gain understanding and knowledge of parents’ values, culture, heritage and ethics.

• Parenting expert Joanne Jewell says that kids should be involved in the process of choosing their books and parents needn’t be concerned if young kids choose the same book every night: ‘they find the repetition comforting. So don’t be concerned if they read the same book every night for a month.’

• If you are reading to kids at bedtime, avoid devices such as e-readers or iPads that emit blue light as this disturbs the body’s circadian rhythm.

• Most research recommends the ideal duration of a bedtime story to be anywhere between 15-20 minutes – attention of both parents and kids dwindles after the 20-minute mark.

• Share some of your favourite stories from when you were a child, suggests Joanne.

• Younger kids may find it hard to sit through a reading session but consistency is key says Dr Afridi. Continue with the habit of sitting and reading and your child will learn the behaviour.

• Lead by example. Parents who read regularly and choose books over screen time will have kids who are more inclined to read, says Joanne.