Kids' mental health, pain levels, and quality of life can all improve after a parent reads them a nighttime tale, a new study found.

When our kids are sick, there are a few simple home remedies we always rely on: Mugs of warm tea with honey and lemon or bowl of Grandma's homemade chicken soup are on order all day long, but what can we do to help them get comfortable at bedtime? According to a new study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reading a bedtime stories can actually reduce children's stress levels and pain through positive hormones sent to the brain. What's more, Brazilian researchers found that reading children a favorite book isn't just beneficial when they're at home with a simple cold—having a story read to them also improved the quality of life of children staying in the hospital. "During storytelling, something happens that we call the 'transport of narrative,' that is, the child, through fantasy, can experience sensations and thoughts that transport them, momentarily, to another world, another place, different from the hospital room and, therefore, away from the aversive conditions of hospitalization," Dr. Guilherme Brockington, the study's lead author from the Instituto D'Or de Pesquisa e Ensino (IDOR) and Federal University of ABC, said in a media release.

mother reading to daughter in bed
Credit: laflor / Getty Images

Storytelling boosts oxytocin, commonly known as "the love hormone," and reduces cortisol, which is a hormone released during periods of stress. The characters and scenes in bedtime stories help children use their imaginations to take them to another place. The study team uncovered this by analyzing 81 children, between the ages of two and seven, in Sao Paulo hospital who had asthma, bronchitis, or pneumonia. Half of the group listened to bedtime stories from storytellers for 30 minutes while the other kids listened to riddles for 30 minutes. With the help of saliva samples to measure the hormones in all of the children, pain exams (before and after the bedtime story and riddle readings), and a word association game (which included showing the kids cards that symbolized a nurse, patient, book, pain, and more), the researchers found that telling stories and riddles both helped decrease cortisol levels and increase oxytocin. However, the findings did show that the bedtime stories helped twice as much.

"Another highlight of this study is that it was not performed in an artificial environment, but within the daily life of the pediatric ICU," Dr. Brockington said. "The storytelling was done individually, the child chose what would be the story to be told. Among the books offered, we chose titles available in ordinary bookstores and without predefined emotional bias, so the story does not influence the child's reaction so much after the activity."

This research proves that bedtime stories are an effective and inexpensive way to help children when they're feeling unwell; these findings could transform the future of therapy and medical practices. "I consider this study one of the most important of which I participated, due to its simplicity, rigor, and potential direct impact on hospital practices, aiming at the relief of suffering. As a low-cost, high-security intervention, it can potentially be implemented throughout the public system, as soon as larger-scale studies verify its reproducibility and efficacy. We intend to extend and replicate it in other places and groups and support the volunteering dedicated to this noble storytelling activity, now with more solid scientific evidence," said Dr. Jorge Moll Neto, the study's co-author.


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