Night, Night: Bedtime Rituals Grow Warm Memories

Night Night, Dr. Newman


Most of us feel as if the entire day flies by without a moment to catch our breaths. Although parents usually follow a bedtime ritual with their young children, it, too, is often cut short or rushed. But reserving that time and making it sacred reaps both immediate and long-term rewards for you and your child.

The rituals below allow you to learn what your child is thinking and build a bond and intimacy difficult to develop during the hectic day. If your child doesn’t catch on at first, be patient.

Try again the next night and soon one or two of these will become a cozy, welcomed routine:

Remember when…

Tell stories of funny things your child did when she was a baby, too young to remember. Children delight in being the central focus of stories and what is unique to one child separates him from his siblings and helps to define him as his own person. Children love repetition so it’s unlikely you’ll be at a loss for ideas.

Relate silly or memorable things that happened on family vacations or during family get-togethers. Some undoubtedly will become family lore like the visit we had from a squirrel that ran across the dining room floor during Thanksgiving dinner and the human chase that followed. Years later, the children, now teens and young adults, ask if we’re inviting a guest squirrel to dinner this year.

Best and worst part of your day

Within this bedtime ritual parents have time to praise the good things a child reports as well as help her with decision-making and problem solving related to bad things she may have encountered—a toy broken by a friend, a lost sweater, or the demise of a goldfish. If you start this ritual when children are young, they are more likely to express their feelings and be willing to ask for your help you when they are older and bedtime rituals are a thing of the past.

When I grow up I want to be…

A preschooler will want to be a rabbit, a giraffe, or a clown one night, a firefighter or police officer the next. Ask your child what she would do if she were a monkey, for example, and discover her fantasies. With older children you have the chance to explore and explain endless career possibilities. Every night will be an eye-opening peak into your child’s mind.

Once upon a time…

Make up a story with parent offering the first line and making your child the hero or heroine, always. Be sure to include his friends in the story. Run the story over several nights or begin a new one each night.

Magic Carpet

With fanfare and a flourish lay a small blanket over the bed then tuck it in just so. You can use one of your child’s baby blankets or his favorite small quilt. Say, “We’re on the magic carpet. Where are we going tonight?” If your child doesn’t have any ideas, suggest a visit to Aunt Betty or a trip to Arizona. Talk about what you might see and do wherever you “go” each night.

In riding the magic carpet you can present a larger world to a child, talk about the weather, the vegetation, the art, the culture, the activities found in the area your child chooses. If he decides to take a Magic Carpet ride to visit a relative, you have a chance to let him know what is special about that relative and in that way keep distant relatives close.

Be Thankful

Tell me two or three things you are thankful for today

Parents may want to start: I’m thankful for the extra time your teacher spent with you and for your help clearing the table. Younger children might be thankful for the dog, a visit from Grandma, two turns on the slide, but as children get older their comments will be more sophisticated. “Things to be thankful for” fosters gratitude and appreciation in children.

Kelley Has a Little Bear

Create a family song to a familiar tune that includes your child’s name or family members near and far to sing at bedtime. Here’s a start to the tune of “Mary had a Little Lamb:”

Kelley has a little bear, little bear, little bear,
Kelley had a little bear,
its fur is brown as dirt.
She carries Spark to bed each night,
to bed each night, to bed each night.

Everywhere that Kelley went,
Kelley went, Kelley went,
Spark was sure to go.
She carries him to bed each night,
To bed each night, to bed each not,
that’s not against the rules.

Spark makes Kelley laugh and play,
Laugh and play, laugh and play…

Animal Tuck-ins

Spread a small blanket the end of your child’s bed and let him tuck in Barnekee, Spot and Bandit saying “good night, sleep tight” in turn to each special stuffed animal. You then say, “your turn, I love you” and tuck in your child with an extra long hug.

Goodnight, Grandma

A ritual offers the chance to keep relatives and the important people in your child’s life prominent. Beyond grandma and grandpa, include cousins, aunts and uncles, best friends and favored teachers or instructors. Include those special stuffed animals, too, if your child asks. On successive nights, you can ask your child if she would like to add someone—a baby cousin, a new friend, perhaps?

Designer Kiss

At the end of the day top off your rituals with a designer kiss. Two pecks on the forehead, one on the nose and one on the head, for example, underscore how special your child is to you.

Think of bedtime exchanges as warm deposits in your child’s memory bank. Any one of these rituals starts a tradition your child will undoubtedly pass along to his or her children

Social psychologist, Susan Newman, Ph.D., specializes in issues impacting parenting and family life. She blogs for Psychology Today Magazine about parenting and her 15 books guide parents and help improve family relationships. Among them: The Case for the Only Child: Your Essential Guide; Little Things Long Remembered: Making Your Children Feel Special Every Day; Under One Roof Again: All Grown Up and (Re)learning to Live Together Happily. Dr. Newman has appeared on Good Morning America, The Today Show, 20/20, CNN as well as other television and radio shows throughout the country: NBC Nightly News, ABC World News Tonight, FOX News and NPR’s Market Watch, The Takeaway and Talk of the Nation. Her work has been featured in major newspapers in and out of the US including, China, England and Canada. To learn more, visit her at