The parenting secret to stress-less nights, confident kids and a tighter-knit family

Developing a bedtime reading routine has far-reaching benefits. Besides boosting your child’s brain power and confidence, it draws everyone closer and even gives parents more time to spend alone, as these Singaporean families reveal

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Picture this: It is the end of a long day and you are trying to get the children settled in their beds but they are bouncing off the walls, throwing tantrums and refusing to put on their pyjamas. You are exhausted as it is, and the notion of spending any extra time with your spouse flies out the window. Sounds all too familiar?

For many families in Singapore, bedtime is a real struggle. It may even be the most stressful time of the day for parents. That is why it is useful to establish a soothing bedtime ritual to calm the chaos, especially one that includes the wind-down activity of reading.

Brainy benefits of reading

There is no question that reading is one of the best ways to develop a child's cognitive ability, spark creativity and boost their confidence. Studies show that children who read frequently tend to fare better academically than those who read less, notes Ms Sandra Davie, senior education correspondent of The Straits Times.

She adds: "Reading for pleasure has been linked to greater intellectual progress, in vocabulary, spelling and, surprisingly, mathematics as well. It also helps to strengthen memory-retention skills - a powerful tool for young students. Let us not forget about the confidence and self-esteem that reading builds in children. Just the ability to speak and write boosts their confidence."

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Mr Marc Sin, 40, and his wife Mrs Caroline Sin, 39, agree. The couple has found that regular bedtime reading has not only provided bonding time for the family, but has also helped their five children, aged between 21 months and 14 years, become more confident and outspoken. "Our kids are all very animated, and can express themselves very well," says Mr Sin. "Through reading, they have a wider vocabulary and can bring their ideas across to us better." (Watch video above for more.)

Realising the importance of reading to their children to cultivate their passion for books, the couple, who run their own sign-printing business, started reading to their first child Amelia as soon as she could sit up. Today, they continue the tradition with five-year-old Arnold and seven-year-old Alessandra before bedtime, reading everything from storybooks to fables and the encyclopaedia (yes, they own a hard copy collection that once belonged to Mrs Sin's family).

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Weaving reading into the bedtime routine is a great way to instil a love for it from a young age, and also encourages them to explore new emotions and communicate their thoughts in a safe environment. To get your kids off to a good start, McDonald's has the Happy Meal Readers, a series of fun and easy-to-read books that you can opt for, over a free toy, when treating your children to a Happy Meal.

The books aim to spur passion for reading and spark imagination by featuring topics children enjoy. For example, the first series of 12 books focused on dinosaurs, the second on endangered and extinct animals, and the current series sparks curiosity with big questions about things that are not often asked, such as whether koalas have fingerprints.

Several studies into reading show that printed books help develop language skills among children, apart from honing their reasoning and thinking abilities, shares The Straits Times' Ms Davie.

Printed books with pictures, like these from McDonald's Happy Meal Readers, help children develop "mental muscles" as they spur imagination and spark creative thinking. PHOTO: SPH

"When reading printed books, there's a more balanced integration of the brain's visual and language networks," she says. "Printed books with pictures help to develop the 'mental muscles' in children, by allowing them to form mental images and reflect on a story's meaning. This [dynamic] takes place when a parent reads a book with the child - turning pages, pointing at pictures, talking about the story."

First-time parents and former Olympians Mdm Dipna Lim-Prasad, 30, and her husband, Mr Poh Seng Song, 38, have found that reading to their son, Tien, since he was just a few days old has helped him develop communication skills from a young age.

"Before he turned one, he could point to books and pass them to me even though he couldn't yet speak," Mdm Lim-Prasad shares. She adds that Tien has now become even more specific about who reads what to him. "He assigns books to both of us!"

Mdm Dipna Lim-Prasad and her husband Mr Poh Seng Song both treasure the storytelling routine they have with their son, Tien, as it brings a sense of consistency and comfort to their family. PHOTO: SPH

Now that he is two, they would occasionally supplement reading with technology, such as searching the Internet for images and videos to help Tien understand more difficult words or concepts they come across while reading.

"Linking real life to the books helps him remember things better," Mdm Lim-Prasad says, although she still values the "interactive and personal" quality of reading. "We don't want him to become a 'zombie' through just watching videos, so we'd often interrupt to ask questions."

But beyond enriching your child's mind, adopting reading as a bedtime habit has many more positive impacts on the parents and overall family unit.

Banishing bedtime "power struggles"

For one, having a routine lowers the stress and anxiety levels for both parents and children, and helps send the latter to sleep faster. "When the kids know what to anticipate, there will be less of a power struggle," shares Mrs Sin, who says their nighttime routine is the secret to managing five boisterous children.

On a typical evening after dinner, the two older children will go off to do their homework independently, while Arnold and Alessandra unwind with some quiet play and reading with Mum and Dad. "If we don't sit them down to read with this routine, they would probably be jumping around, bickering and generally annoying one another. And if they're on their mobile or tablet screens, they'll just be scrolling for hours on end," says Mrs Sin.

Mrs Nurbeeha Omar, who reads regularly to her two younger daughters Nurameera, five, and Nurfateema, three, says having a regular bedtime routine helps to regulate their emotions. PHOTO: SPH

Mother-of-four Nurbeeha Omar, who has three daughters and a newborn son, believes that having a routine helps regulate the emotions that her children carry throughout the day. The 38-year-old homemaker and her husband Mr Mohamad Razmy Omar (better known as Razmy), 41, take turns reading every night to their young daughters Nurameera and Nurfateema, aged five and three years respectively.

"At home, we are their safe space. So when you have a routine, they know that at the end of the day, they get to cuddle with Mum and Dad. Having that constant brings a sense of calm and comfort," Mrs Nurbeeha shares.

Bedtime Reading Tip #1: Let Your Child Choose The Book
It is much easier to get your child to read something they are actually interested in, as they will naturally want to read it, says Mrs Nurbeeha, who has read everything from a kids' recipe book to easy Mandarin books with her daughters.

Calming effect on both parents and children

In addition, reading together offers parents a brief respite from the stresses that pile up over the day. When Mr Sin sits down with his children at the end of a hectic day, he says it has a "very calming effect" on him. "It's a very therapeutic thing for the parent to have time together when your children share their thoughts with you," he says. "You get to escape your life when you go into the world of the storybook," adds Mr Sin.

Once the kids are put to bed, parents can then spend some uninterrupted quality time together, which helps strengthen the husband-wife relationship, too. On good nights when the younger ones are settled by 9pm, the Sins get a chance to reconnect. Mrs Sin shares, "We will head to the gym for an hour, go for a walk and chit-chat, or sometimes just lock ourselves in the room and watch Netflix. If the kids were awake, we wouldn't be able to walk out of the house without being bombarded by their calls."

Bedtime Reading Tip #2: Act It Out And Be Silly
"Being animated, such as making funny actions as you read, keeps kids curious and attentive. Nursery rhymes are a good place to start, as they usually come with a song," says Mrs Sin, who has been reading to her kids from the time they could sit up.

Gaining new perspectives

Besides fostering physical closeness - an invaluable asset in our time-starved society - taking the time to slow down and read together also offers parents a precious glimpse into their children's mind. They get to understand them better and learn about them as individuals.

Instead of sticking to the book's storyline, Mr Marc Sin gives his children the freedom to interpret stories according to their perspectives and views. PHOTO: SPH

"Children have very different perspectives on things, and they will share them with you," says Mr Sin, who has learnt to become a more patient parent through the years he has spent reading to his children. "Sometimes in our quick-paced lifestyle, we are too quick to jump in and want to stick to the book. Instead, we should slow down and let them tell you what's happening through their eyes, through how they interpret the stories."

He relates how a reading of "The Three Little Pigs" was reinterpreted by his children. "Instead of huffing and puffing to blow the house down, they came up with their own take on the story, where the wolf pushed the house down. They actually empathised with the wolf… which had become tired from all the blowing."

When children learn to read for pleasure, they develop the capacity to immerse themselves in the story, visualising meaning and relating to characters, and allowing parents a glimpse into how they view the world. Ms Davie adds, "They learn to experience the world from other perspectives - to learn from and appreciate others."

Even toddler Tien has learnt to reference books when it comes to expressing his emotions. Mr Poh, who's a pilot, shares: "Whenever we tell Tien 'Papa and Mama love you', he would reply, 'to the moon and back', which is a line in one of the first books we read to him. It warms the heart, but also shows how reading helped us communicate with him from a very early stage. It was a very important process that we managed to build right from the beginning."

Having grown up with a love for books, Mrs Nurbeeha hopes that reading will become a life-long habit that her children will also enjoy. PHOTO: SPH

At 9pm each night, Mrs Nurbeeha deliberately puts her phone on airplane mode. She then sits down and observes her daughters as they pick out their books and chit-chat with one another. "When you're just looking at them with nothing else in your hands, you learn so many things like what they're learning in school, about what they like and don't like. I get to see a different side of them."

Bedtime Reading Tip #3: Go At Your Child's Pace
Every child learns at a different pace, so let the reading session be a positive and encouraging one, advises Mr Sin. "It's not just about checking vocabulary words off a list, but about getting to spend time together."

Building a happier, closer-knit family

"Through reading, you share not only your thoughts and ideas, but also that intimate bonding time between just the two or three of you," adds Mr Sin, who savours these precious moments that cannot be regained as the kids grow up. As his son Arnold quips: "I like reading time because I like my daddy making me laugh!"

For bigger families like the Sins', the older children can sometimes help read to the younger ones. Mr Sin observes that this brings the siblings closer as they share their thoughts on a book or learn to be more patient with each other. "The older ones even recommend books to the younger ones."

As a first-time mum, Mdm Lim-Prasad shares that the act of reading helped ease her into parenthood and grow the bond with her baby. "Being a mum was a bit awkward for me at the start because I didn't really know what to do with a newborn, who felt like a complete stranger. Reading to him was the only thing I knew to do, so it was really about building something in common."

The Sins love reading, and when Mum and Dad are too busy, the older siblings Amberly and Amelia will spend time reading with the younger ones. PHOTO: SPH

It is also a chance for parents to create a family tradition, or even leave a legacy of sorts. As an avid reader herself, reading to her children from a young age gives Mrs Nurbeeha the opportunity to pass down something extremely meaningful to her - the love for reading that her own mum instilled in her.

"For me, reading is not a short-term goal; it's a lifelong habit I want my children to have," she shares. Recalling the times when her mother would bring her to the library and secondhand bookstores when she was a child, she says, "Those are the best memories I have with her from when I was growing up, and I want my children to remember me in the same way. My mother has also continued the tradition of reading at the library with my kids."

Her eldest daughter Natasha, 12, fondly recalls how her parents read to her when she was younger, saying, "I'm actually quite thankful for that time, because now with three other siblings, it's harder to get time with them."

Having reading as part of a bedtime routine for children helps instil a love for books from a young age, as well as sparks curiosity and imagination. PHOTO: SPH

It is clear that the benefits of reading are indispensable, but the quality time spent with the kids go a long way in keeping the family together. So even on days when they are exhausted, especially with a new infant around, Mrs Nurbeeha and Mr Razmy try their best not to omit reading at bedtime. "It's not just about the reading, but the fact that the kids just need to be hugged and held," Mr Razmy says. "We want them to feel a sense of security and love - so that when they are older, they know they can still come to us and feel the affection."

Mdm Lim-Prasad and Mr Poh echo these sentiments. The couple, who are expecting their second child, appreciate the simplicity of these moments. "It's the comfort of knowing that, whatever happens throughout the day, you can count on a few consistencies. It's simple, perfect and always there, and that's what family is. We're always there for one another, no matter what," says Mdm Lim-Prasad.

Bedtime Reading Tip #4: Be flexible
Adopting a flexible approach come bedtime will give you greater peace of mind. "Tweak your routine as your child grows older, or adjust it according to how he's feeling that day. If he's feeling extra energetic, then you may need to read more books to help him calm down," shares Mdm Lim-Prasad.

  • Kickstart your bedtime story session with the help of McDonald's Happy Meal Readers. It features a series of 12 easy-to-read hardcovers entitled "The Tiny Detectives", written by Cressida Cowell, the author of bestselling children's book series "How To Train Your Dragon". Available free with the purchase of every Happy Meal.

In partnership with McDonald's

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