The cover of ‘The Rabbit Who Wants to Fall Asleep.’ (Photo courtesy of Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin)
Pop quiz: What’s the hottest summer read at the moment? We get why you might guess The Girl on the Train or Harper Lee’s buzzed-about Go Set a Watchman — but the title currently blowing up the best-seller list is a much more kid-friendly candidate.
The Rabbit Who Wants to Fall Asleep, a children’s book self-published by author and psychologist Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin using Amazon’s CreateSpace platform, practically guarantees to coax even the most bedtime-resistant tyke into dreamland by the time you turn the final page.
Sound too good to be true? Legions of parents swear by its success, so we delved into the science of the book’s sleep-inducing spell.
First, we must understand why kids have trouble drifting off. Often, the child is completely exhausted, yet too anxious to succumb to shut-eye. “They’re afraid of going to bed, so they fight their sleepiness and become hyper or restless,” says Umakanth Khatwa, MD, director of the sleep laboratory at Boston Children’s Hospital.
While your little one may not be able to verbalize what’s triggering his or her nocturnal nervousness, there are a few common causes: If you used to co-sleep, your kid might have lingering unease about being separated from you at night. An environmental change (like beginning to sleep in a bed rather than the crib, or even simply having the bedroom door closed instead of open) can throw a child off. And if he or she has been having nightmares, it can understandably be scary to keep those eyes closed.
“Still, a part of them truly wants to rest — and that’s the key to this book,” Khatwa explains to Yahoo Health. “If you can calm the child down enough to eliminate their anxiety, they will enter a period of relaxation and sleep will take over.”
A page from Ehrlin’s book. (Photo courtesy of Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin)
That said, the book isn’t a magic bullet for every kid. “It’s most effective in children between the ages of two and a half to nine,” Khatwa says. “In this range, they’re old enough to understand the language, but young enough to believe in the story.”
The book brilliantly plays upon certain psychological techniques that help induce sleepiness. We break them down:
Setting a Serene Scene: You probably picture story time with your kid nestled in your lap, flipping the pages of a book together and talking about the pictures. But the introduction to “The Rabbit” urges caretakers to read in a dim room, while your little one is lying down.
And even though there are illustrations, children are encouraged not to look at them. “This makes it easier for them to focus on the flow of the words, rather than going off on a tangent about one of the pictures,” Ehrlin, the book’s author, tells Yahoo Health.
“Reading stimulates your brain much more than listening does,” Khatwa adds. “Without looking at the book, a child’s imagination can engage more, and they’ll have an easier time relating to the story.” (Plus, light reflecting off the page can increase alertness.)
Readers are also advised to read the book all the way to the end, even if their child falls asleep partway through. “This is to be sure that they are really sleeping and won’t wake up when you leave the room,” Ehrlin explains. In the first stage of sleep, which can last between 5 to 15 minutes, people are easily awakened. You want to make certain you safely pass this touch-and-go phase.
The Rabbit is also full of warm-and-fuzzy characters with appropriately drowsy names, like Sleepy Snail, Uncle Yawn, Heavy-Eyed Owl, and Roger pronounced as two yawns (Rooo-geeer). “These are nonthreatening animals compared to something like a tiger,” Khatwa points out. “Books with too much excitement or drama can heighten anxiety.”
Honing a Calm Cadence: The introduction to the book instructs readers to place particular emphasis on words or phrases written in bold text, such as “sleeping, now,” “feeling even more tired,” and “allow yourself to fall asleep.” It also guides readers to speak in a very slow, tranquil voice whenever they encounter italicized text (“Walk slowly, so slowly,” and “you feel calm and relaxed and can do as I tell you.”)
“These methods induce a mild hypnosis,” Khatwa says. “Stressing strategic words like ‘sleep’ and ‘now’ helps the child’s mind focus on going to bed, and speaking in a peaceful, unhurried tone has a sedative effect.” The italics become much more frequent as the story progresses, leading the listener into an increasingly deep state of relaxation.
Notice the bold text in the book, emphasizing words like “fall asleep” and “now.” (Photo courtesy of Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin)
Name-Dropping: In certain parts of the book, readers are told to use the child’s name. (“Roger the Rabbit was just your age. Not older, not younger, exactly as old as you are [name].”) “This helps kids connect with the character,” Khatwa explains. “It gives them the sense that they are the centerpiece of the story, falling asleep along with the rabbit.”
Yawn-Dropping: Are you letting out a yawn right now, even after merely reading the y-word? At indicated points throughout the story, readers are cued to yawn for precisely that reason: It’s a powerfully contagious force. “Although no one knows why yawning is contagious, it does help induce sleep, similar to doing a deep breathing exercise,” Khatwa says.
Rep-Rep-Repetition: So, the prose is not exactly Hemingway — but it’s structured with a very specific psychological purpose in mind. Take this passage, for example:
At the same time he started to breathe deeper and slower, he felt even more tired and felt how relaxing it is when things go slower, Roger got more tired and the more he relaxed and calmed down, the more tired he and you became now, and the more tired and the more he relaxed, the more tired he and you became, now [yawn]. That’s right.
“The run-on sentences and repetition of words like ‘tired,’ ‘relaxed,’ ‘slower,’ and ‘now’ work together to produce a constant, rhythmic stream of words that’s easy to listen to and relax to,” Ehrlin explains. “I actually tested the book on preschoolers to find out how to make the text as boring and sleep-inducing as possible.”
The repetition also keeps your mind focused on what you want to achieve: sleep. “It drives the point home,” Khatwa says.
“The Rabbit” may be geared toward the kindergarten set, but plenty of adults have reported succumbing to its sway. Khatwa knows one father who put the audio book on in the car for his toddler, and ended up falling asleep at the wheel. (Luckily, dad and son were okay, but he had to shell out $3,000 in car repairs.)
“The same as with children, anxiety plays a big role in insomnia for adults,” says Khatwa. “Stress about work or relationships can keep our minds churning.” The Rabbit is so effective because is it establishes a soothing atmosphere that helps quiet the mental chatter.
Similarly, adults should try to make the hour before lights out as relaxing as possible. “Avoid using technology,” Khatwa advises. “It not only stimulates the mind but also emits a blue light that suppresses the production of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin.” (On that note, it’s best not to read the Rabbit book on a tablet or smartphone — or at least turn the screen brightness way down.)
Instead, wind down with a book, soothing music, or, heck, a cup of non-caffeinated herbal tea — whatever gets you in the zone. And if all else fails? Download an audio version of The Rabbit, slip on a pair of headphones, and let the ZZs roll in.
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