The stories, the songs, the snuggling. Brushing teeth, saying prayers, exchanging I love yous as the lights go out and the door closes. Even the requests to have the blankets tucked in, or the demands for another glass of water after lights-out are part of a ritual that makes sleep a more comfortable place to be.
Rituals do, in fact, have a real and measurable effect on our lives — whether we perform them first thing in the morning to start each day, or only when we are preparing for an important event. They can help us calm ourselves down or get excited in preparation for tests or interviews, and can give us a psychological edge in sporting events or other competitions. They can even enhance the flavor of our food.
Rituals bring an element of certainty to something uncertain, and a level of control when we feel we have none. They direct our anticipation and prime our brains to make the most of whatever we are about to experience. While sometimes we may engage in rituals automatically and without thought, it is precisely that strength of habit that makes them a source of comfort. For a moment — or many moments — our brain can have a break while our body goes through the motions and gets into a groove.
In our homes, rituals help create stability, predictability, and camaraderie. For a while, before my daughter was born last year, one of the bedtime rituals at our house included my two sons climbing on my or my husband’s back, and us lumbering on all fours down the hallway to their bedroom while singing a song about oxcarts going “oh so slow.” We would laugh and all collapse together in their tiny bedroom before joining hands in a circle to pray.
We have rituals at holidays, of course: From our Thanksgiving meal to our Pi(e) Day party, and rituals to help celebrate birthdays and milestones. Every Sunday we take part in religious rituals of renewal and re-commitment. All play their part in helping our family become a strong group of strong individuals who know who they are and where they belong.
However, it is the simple, sweet bedtime rituals that I hope become a source of peace and comfort for my children even as these change and evolve, as our children grow. I don’t expect them (or us!) to lumber through the hallway on all fours as teenagers, but perhaps the memory of those experiences, and the feeling evoked by the love and laughter we shared as we crowded into the tiny bedroom, will calm them when they are afraid or nervous and allow them to rest easy and sleep well night after night.