Slip in time to dream before dozing off

With a varied bedtime mix, children will both sleep to learn and learn to sleep

By now, most parents with frisky tykes would have heard of the miracle book that puts kids to sleep.

Slate.com called it "Goodnight Moon on steroids", one mother interviewed by The Daily Mail dubbed it "a literary sleeping pill". My kids know it simply as "The Rabbit Book".

Since it was self-published last year - then translated and picked up by mainstream publishers earlier this year - Swedish psychologist Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin's book, The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep, has become a bestseller and sparked numerous editorials on its success.

So, recently, when I received a copy from a publisher friend, I declared to my two sons that, in lieu of our usual made-up bedtime stories about flying pigs and strange planets, I was going to read them a book that would make them sleep.

"You shouldn't have told us that," retorted the feisty nine-year-old. "Now we'll be prepared and will purposely not fall asleep."

I shrugged. "We'll see."

After all, bedtime is  when the brain slows  down, so a different sort  of learning can take over.  It is when creative wool-gathering can  begin in dreams. Some parents take advantage  of the evening downtime  to squeeze in some  extra education... I prefer  to use that time to fill  my children's heads  with new ideas and fantasies. Stories, no matter how nonsensical,  follow their own logic.

That night, I cracked open the thin volume ("A new way of getting children to sleep", boasted the strap on the cover), and proceeded to read the rather ho-hum story.

The sentence fragments (sample: "He was about to fall asleep; he did not know how soon. Now. How close to sleeping he really is.") and the abrupt shifts in tenses bothered the copyeditor in me, but I soldiered on.

Within a few pages, the nine-year-old was out like a light. His younger brother, six, lasted longer, but not by much. By the time I read the last page, he, too, was snoring.

I was amazed. Bedtime used to be a series of giggles and excited back-seat storytelling as I spun yarn after yarn, until the Supportive Spouse shooed me out of the boys' room and imposed a draconian silence.

With The Rabbit Book, however, it was as though I was actually giving them permission to sleep. One line that was repeated to the child was: "It is OK to fall asleep now, before the story ends. Because he knows that it has a happy ending."

My invented stories had been the exact opposite. They were too exciting, always ending on cliffhangers that left the boys begging for more.

There was the one about a space cruise, where they visited different solar systems and asteroids each night - a kind of odyssey, where each shore excursion involved a contest of sorts with the locals (a hula hoop competition with the Saturn inhabitants; buying the best ink in the universe from the Pluto natives).

As a writer, to be able to so enrapture one's audience was great. As a parent trying to ensure they had enough sleep on a school night - not so great.

Ehrlin's approach was part hypnosis and part common sense. By telling kids to relax and leave their daily anxieties in an imaginary box by the bed, his book was helping to instill good habits about coping with stress and regulating emotions that could persist into adulthood.

I remembered a very brilliant friend, now an art curator, telling me how she never learnt to go to sleep as a child. She simply ran herself ragged until she passed out from exhaustion at the end of the day.

I wasn't that much different: I stayed up until 2am most nights, taking advantage of the quiet of the wee hours to read or write down complicated thoughts. More often than not, I could conk out only with an iPad in my hands, after hours of idle swiping.

It struck me that Ehrlin's book was a good tool to counter the modern distractions that increasingly get in the way of our being able to truly rest.

The day after I first read The Rabbit Book to them, I gloated to the elder boy that he had not been able to resist its sleep-inducing powers. He demanded a rematch. That night, he fell asleep at the same page. The night after was the same.

When he went to Sydney with his grandparents and found himself wide awake at 1am (10pm Singapore time), he called me on Skype and I read him the book. After 10 minutes, all I could hear was quiet breathing from a screen that had gone dark. Ehrlin's book worked long-distance, too.

Still, I found myself missing the good, old books that I used to read to my kids. Bedtime was when we worked our way, chapter by chapter, night after night, through classics like Alice In Wonderland, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea and To Kill A Mockingbird.

The kids missed the space-pig stories. There was only so much of The Rabbit Book we could take.

After all, bedtime is when the brain slows down, so a different sort of learning can take over. It is when creative wool-gathering can begin in dreams.

Some parents take advantage of the evening downtime to squeeze in some extra education. Bedtime Math, for example, is an app that couches maths problems in a story, which reportedly helps boost students' maths scores (although, spending extra time each night on maths, with or without an app, will probably improve your maths).

I prefer to use that time to fill my kids' heads with new ideas and fantasies. Stories, no matter how nonsensical, follow their own logic. Those champion hula-hoopers in Saturn? They're so good because they've honed their skills by observing the dust rings around their planet.

The people in Land of Winning, where everyone is a winner all the time? That's not utopia, but dystopia - demonstrating that losing is necessary and failure shouldn't be something to be feared in real life.

I now alternate invented stories with classic books and, occasionally, trot out The Rabbit Book on nights when the boys are extremely wound up. Some nights, I simply close the door and let them figure bedtime out for themselves.

As with all things, moderation is key and a varied bedtime mix will result in kids who both sleep to learn and learn to sleep.

•Clara Chow is a freelance writer and co-editor of literary journal WeAreAWebsite.com

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 14, 2015, with the headline 'Slip in time to dream before dozing off'. Print Edition | Subscribe