Forget counting sheep and/or sleepy herbal teas. The newest weapon in the age-old battle between parents and kids over bedtime is a self-published picture book titled The Rabbit Who Wants to Fall Asleep, a text that guarantees it will knock out children using linguistic trickery to induce a quasi-hypnotic sleep state.
Promising “a new way of getting children to sleep,” the book claims to be “an innovative and groundbreaking type of bedtime story that uses sophisticated psychological techniques,” including repetition, emphasis on yawning, subliminal suggestions, and frequent use of the child’s name to nudge young ones toward slumber. “Every word has been carefully chosen to create the magic, as parents sometimes call it,” says Carl-Johan Forssén Ehrlin, the book’s author.
Written in consultation with psychologists and therapists and imbued with these clinically proven methods, the book asserts that kids will not only fall asleep faster but also sleep more calmly. It’s a bedtime story for the FiveThirtyEight set. It’s Goodnight Moon on steroids.
Self-published in 2011 by Ehrlin, a Swede who has written on leadership and personal development, the 24-page book was translated into English in 2014. Fueled by breathless reviews that claim the book produces miraculous results, it rocketed this summer to the top of Amazon’s best-seller list in both the U.S. and the U.K., becoming the first self-published book to go to No. 1. Within just a few months, it has been published in over 40 languages.
Ehrlin attributes the success in large part to word of mouth: “Helping your child to go to sleep can sometimes be a real challenge—parents have told me that it took up to five hours each day before they tried The Rabbit Who Wants to Go to Sleep,” he said. “When you find a solution to your big problem, then you are really happy to tell all your friends that have similar challenges.”
The story itself is unremarkable—Roger the Rabbit goes on a journey to fall asleep, meeting friends like Uncle Yawn, Sleepy Snail, and Heavy-Eyed Owl along the way—and almost every news article mentions how tedious it is. The illustrations are equally trivial and seem to have been done by a somewhat talented grade-schooler. The intro even advises adults reading it aloud that they can skip the illustrations completely and just read the text. As Kirkus Reviews wrote in their coverage, “That this title … became an international bestseller says a lot more about the desperation of parents of sleepless children than it does about the quality of the book.”
Still, it has all the key elements most conducive to sleep. Umakanth Khatwa, director of Sleep Laboratories at Boston Children’s Hospital, points to three reasons for the books success: First, it’s a simple story that toddlers and preschoolers can relate to. Second, children identify with the sleepy characters, which pushes them towards sleepiness. But, most important, any magic powers the book possesses are derived from the way it’s read. “It’s the power of hypnotic language,” Khatwa says.
Detailed instructions direct adults to stress bolded words, read italicized sentences slowly and calmly, yawn at particular times, and read through to the end even if the child falls asleep before that to ensure the child is fully asleep. Example (using Lisa for the child’s name):
Relax your feet, Lisa. Roger and you do as Heavy-Eyed Owl tells you and now you relax your feet. Relax your legs, Lisa. Roger and you do so now. Relax your entire upper body Frankie. Roger and you do so, now. Relax your arms Lisa. Allow them to be heavy as stones. The Rabbit and you do so, now.
You are relaxing your head and allowing your eyelids to be heavier Lisa, just letting them relax. Roger and you are relaxing deeply. Now.
Khatwa calls it “a form of gentle hypnosis.” A common reason that children have trouble sleeping is anxiety, and he says this method of reading can soothe that anxiety and make them relaxed. Once that happens, children will fall asleep and stay asleep. And although there are many other books that aim to help children sleep, Khatwa says he hasn’t seen a book with such emphasis on the way it’s designed to be read.
But why has this book caused such a commotion? Hasn’t it always been true what Tom Selleck says in Three Men and a Baby—when he reads an article about a bloody boxing match to baby Mary in a soft, soothing storybook-reading voice—that it’s not what you say but the tone of your voice?
Probably, Khatwa says. “With the right story, using this technique of stressing certain words, intonations, characters that resemble sleep and alleviate anxiety, it should work. It is nothing particular to this story.”
In fact most parents are already doing a version of this when they read to children before bed. But Khatwa says that for kids who have more trouble falling asleep, they need “a more refined technique, like this book, which may help more than the regular reading books, in a gentler way.”
Khatwa says he finds himself recommending the book a few times a month, as an option to pediatric patients without any medical condition who have trouble falling asleep because they’re anxious. While he’s quick to note that the book won’t work on all children, he says that almost anything that’s not medication is worth trying, and these books tend to work best on preschoolers and early grade-schoolers.
It’s also important to use the book in concert with other methods to induce sleep, like having a consistent bedtime, maintaining a pre-bed routine, and avoiding things that will stimulate the mind, like sugar or TV, right before bedtime. Reading the book after feeding a kid a bunch of sugar or before his or her natural bedtime will have little, if any effect. And don’t read the book on electronic devices, which emit a light that can increase alertness.
Does the voracious demand for this book indicate that children are more anxious today than in earlier eras? Not so, says Khatwa. What’s different now is that parents are more aware of children’s anxiety when it’s present. That’s because many parents today are both working and they need their sleep to get up for work. Children who have trouble sleeping take up more of their time that could be allocated to sleep or other tasks—not to mention causing anxiety for the parents themselves. Unfortunately, there’s not yet a similar knockout book for mom or dad.
Read more from The Drift, Slate's pop-up blog about sleep.