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Nighty-Night: Bedtime Music Guaranteed to Put Kids to SLEEP

Editor’s Note: We’d like to welcome Robert Greenburg as a LifeTales guest blogger. Mr. Greenburg is a composer, pianist and music historian based in Califnornia. He offers over 30 music courses, originally made for The Teaching Company’s Great Courses series, through his website. He also blogs on Patreon and his website.

Dinner’s over. The table’s cleared and dishes are done. Now, there’s just one thing between you and an hour or two of peace. Bedtime, also known as The Witching Hour.

We all know how it’s supposed to go:   

  • The pajamas, diaper, or pull-up are on.
  • Hands and faces are washed.
  • Teeth are brushed.
  • This week’s favorite story is read and re-read again.
  • Cuddles are had, lullabies sung and goodnight kisses bestowed.

And that’s exactly when the stall tactics begin.

  • “I’m hungry!”
  • “I’m thirsty!”
  • “I need to go to the bathroom!”
  • “I want to stay up with you!”

Finicky sleepers are enough to push anyone to their wits’ end. But who do you call?

Dead European composers!

Seriously. Listening to classical music at bedtime is a surefire way to get your kids relaxed and ready for a good night’s sleep.

How classical music can make your bedtime routines smoother

Classical music with a steady beat and steady harmonic rhythm can prime your kids for sleep, says composer Robert Greenberg. Photo courtesy of Photo by Larisa Birta on Unsplash.

Music helps to calm, quiet, engage, distract and transport human beings of all ages to the drowsy state that is the gateway to a deep and restful sleep.  

As a pianist, composer and PhD in music composition with four children of my own, here’s what I’ve learned through experimentation and hard experience.

When picking classical music for bedtime, the piece should have:

  • A steady beat.  Why? A steady beat of moderate-to-slow speed induces steady breathing of moderate-to-slow speed, a necessary pre-condition for snoozing.
  • A steady harmonic rhythm, which means that the chords, or harmonies, change with a high degree of regularity. The harmonic rhythm of Johann Pachelbel’s ubiquitous Canon changes with the regularity of the seasons, creating a soporific effect that even a caffeine addict will feel. Contrast that to the opening of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, for example, in which the jagged, explosive, unpredictable expressive mood is partially a product of a fairly irregular harmonic rhythm.
  • No vocal tracks. Voices and the words they contain grab and hold our attention. In general, it’s not conducive to snoozing.
  • No orchestral sections. Their greater dynamic range of loud and soft extremes in orchestral music may be too stimulating. I’ve found it’s better to stick to works for solo keyboard or chamber music. Save the 1812 Overture or Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony for your mornings.  

A note about the ‘Mozart Effect’ 

Over 225 years after his death, Mozart’s still being used as an aspirational model for many parents who want their children to achieve prodigy status. Photo courtesy of Anton Shuvalov on Unsplash.

Before we get into particular recommendations, I want to note that many fine, well-meaning music lovers have made small fortunes writing about “The Mozart Effect,” “The Bach Effect,” and even “The Alternative Art-Punk Emo Hardcore Effect.”

Regardless of composer or period, these advocates promise that playing certain specific classical music to children, both in utero and post-birth, produces smarter, happier and well-rounded children.

Sadly, such promises are utter nonsense. 

What works best for bedtime is instrumental music with a steady beat and a steady harmonic rhythm. While this definition eliminates most Emo Hardcore music, it does include the bulk of European instrumental music composed between roughly 1700 and 1800, and much of the instrumental music written to the late 1800s. 

That block of time spans the High Baroque and Classical periods, including notable composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach and Wolfgang Mozart. But it also captures work from hundreds of other worthy composers, whose music will just as easily put your children to bed.

So rest easy that if my selections don’t work for your family, you could also choose music by:

  • Arcangelo Corelli
  • Guiseppe Torelli
  • Antonio Vivaldi
  • George Frideric Handel
  • J.C. Bach, C.P.E. Bach or W. F. Bach (all three Johann Sebastian’s sons)
  • Georg Philipp Telemann
  • Joseph Haydn
  • Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf (a real composer, honest)

Whether any of their compositions will also improve your children’s SAT scores is a conversation for another post.

10 Musical selections for better bedtimes

An orchestra plays for a packed assembly hall.
Not all symphonies are created equally for bedtime, says Robert Greenberg. Here are his top 10 picks. Orchestra photo courtesy of Arindam Mahanta on Unsplash.
  1. Johann Sebastian Bach’s Suites for Solo Cello.  A suite is a collection of dances, and Bach composed six such solo cello collections from 1717 to 1723. They form the bedrock of the cello repertoire and are the most frequently played solo works ever composed for the instrument. Listening to a solo instrument soothes the mind because of the intimacy of concentrating on a single, musical voice. Cellos have a round, sweet, and relatively low/deep sound that compounds that effect. Not sure which recording to choose? I recommend Janos Starker on Mercury.
  2. Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Composed in 1741, this epic keyboard work consists of a theme and 30 variations, concluded by a reprise of the theme. This is the most thematically “appropriate” piece on this list. Composed to help a former Russian ambassador to the electoral court of Saxony sleep at night, it will help your kids, too. Recommended recording: Glenn Gould’s 1982 piano recording on Sony. (Gould’s 1955 recording is too fast for bedtime.)
  3. Joseph Haydn’s String Quartets Op. 33. These six string quartets, composed in 1781, were published together as Opus (or “work”) 33. They’re works of great beauty, brevity, and expressive directness. Recommended recording: The Kodály Quartet on NAXOS.
  4. Wolfgang Mozart’s Concerto for Flute and Harp. Composed in 1778, this is an ethereally beautiful work from Mozart’s repertoire. Recommended recording: Yehudi Menuhin conducting the English Chamber Orchestra on Virgin Classics.
  5. Wolfgang Mozart’s “Haydn” String Quartets. Mozart composed these six string quartets between 1782 and 1785, and dedicated them to his friend and mentor Joseph Haydn. Upon hearing these quartets, the Haydn told Mozart’s father that, “Before God, and as an honest man, I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me either in person or by name.” They should help your kids relax, too. Recommended recording: The Alexander String Quartet on Foghorn.
  6. Wolfgang Mozart’s Piano Trios.  Mozart composed five mature trios for piano, violin and cello between 1786 and 1788. Recommended recording: The Beaux Arts Trio, on Philips.
  7. Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Quartets Op. 18, known as the “Early String Quartets”.  The six string quartets in this collection—elegant lyric, and ahead of their time—were composed between 1798 and 1800. Recommended recording: The Alexander String Quartet, on Foghorn.
  8. Johannes Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet in B Minor. Brahms wrote this preternaturally beautiful work, scored for clarinet and string quartet, near the end of his life in 1891. I humbly and happily suggest that it is among the most perfect pieces of music ever composed. Recommended recording: Karl Leister, clarinet and the Vermeer Quartet on Orfeo.
  9. Johannes Brahms’s Trio for Violin, Horn, and Piano (known as the “Horn Trio”). Another pieces of perfection from Brahms, you’ll want to listen to it for yourself once the kids are asleep. Recommended recording: Vladimir Ashkenazy, piano; Itzhak Perlman, violin; Barry Tuckwell, horn on London.
  10. J. S. Bach’s Inventions and Sinfonias (“Two and Three-Part Inventions”) for harpsichord. This last piece is a household favorite.  I have played this music for my youngest two kids (aged 12 and 10) nearly every night for the last ten years. Once, many years ago, I attempted to substitute something else. My daughter, five years old at the time, staged an demonstration and shut down the house. I never swapped it out again. Recommended recording: Kenneth Gilbert, harpsichord on Archiv.

We’d love to hear from you

Are you a believer in music as a gateway to better bedtimes? What kind of music plays well in your family? We’d love to hear about your journey. Drop us a line at hello@lifetales.com.

Do you have professional expertise of value to families? Would you like your expertise featured on our blog? Send your pitch to hello@lifetales.com. We can’t respond to all inquiries, but we’ll be in touch if there’s a fit.

Water, Food Rainbows and Togetherness

What Canada’s Updated Food Guide Means For Your Family

By Dr. Vivien Brown, MD

Dr. Vivien Brown, MD, is pictured in a pink suit with black pin-stripes. She is smiling at the camera in this professional head shot.
Editor’s Note: We’d like to welcome Dr. Vivien Brown, MD, as a guest blogger to LifeTales. Dr. Brown is a family physician in Toronto, Canada and a well-known national and international speaker on women’s health. She’s also the author of A Woman’s Guide to Healthy Aging: Seven essential ways to keep you vital, happy and strong.

Eating is a powerful part of life. Think about your earliest childhood memories. Chances are, food—and the people who made it for you—plays a big part of those moments.

Yet, developing healthy food habits can be a great anxiety source for many parents. That’s particularly true if you’ve got a picky eater on your hands or your child’s suddenly changed their preferences.

In January 2019, Health Canada announced that a brand new food guide for families. It’s the first time Health Canada has revised its recommendations in 12 years.

How can this change help parents? Food guides, which reflect the best available scientific evidence at the time of their publication, offer insight into where to focus your energy in building healthy eating habits.  

And the new guide’s got some great suggestions.

The biggest change? Food rainbows, not food groups

The biggest change to Canada’s Food guide is removing the old food groups: grains, milk products, fruit and vegetables, and meat and alternatives.

Instead, the new food guide encourages Canadians to think of each meal in terms of a plate divided into four sections.

A plate and glass of water demonstrate Canada's Food Guide recommendations. The left half of the the plate is covered in colourful fruits and vegetables. The right half is divided into protein-rich and whole grain foods.
Canada’s Food Guide recommends that Canadians focus on food proportions on a dinner plate rather than traditional food groups. Image courtesy of Health Canada.
  • Two quarters of that plate should include plenty of fruits and vegetables with a variety of color, such as purple grapes, green broccoli or kale, red onion, orange sweet potato or yellow corn. (You get the idea.) Serve a variety of the most colorful foods your family enjoys.
  • One quarter of the plate should be focused on protein, such as tofu, beans, legumes or meat.
  • The plate’s last quarter should be for whole-grain foods, such as brown rice or multigrain noodles.

Unsure what counts as a whole grain? John Berardi, PhD and co-founder of Toronto-based Precision Nutrition (PN), has an excellent overview to finding whole grains in your local markets.

And PN also has a useful visual system for estimating portions using your hand size when you’re on the run.

How you eat is just as important as what you eat

Canada’s new food guide goes further than just identifying healthy foods. If you want to build strong, lifelong eating habits, parents should also be mindful of how we eat.

A group of adults eat together around a long table in an outdoor market. They are talking as they eat.
Canada’s Food Guide now recommends eating with other people is an important part of living a healthy lifestyle. Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash.
  1. Make time for your meals. While modern life makes it inevitable that you’ll be dining and dashing every now and again, it’s important to sit down and pay conscious attention to your food. It takes more effort to eat a healthy diet if you’re constantly on the move.
  2. Avoid digital distractions. Turn off the TV, put tablets away and keep your phones off the table. You’ll enjoy your food and develop a better sense of social connection with your family. While we’ve all distracted a grumpy toddler with a device in a crowded restaurant, devices should not be a go-to option at dinner.
  3. Cook at home more often. Home-cooked meals tend to be healthier because they give you full control of your ingredients. Decrease or eliminate high sodium foods, food high in sugar and food with saturated fats.
  4. Involve your children in preparing the meal. You can teach your kids a useful life skill and pass your family’s cultural practices along by teaching your kids to cook. Cooking can also be a way to bring children and grandparents together, deepening their sense of family and where they come from.
  5. Eat and talk together. Eating is tied to social activity, family and friends in every culture. When Brazil introduced their food guide in 2015, their government also emphasized the culture and climate of eating, along with food choice. Eating with others improves our feeling of connection, teaches conversation skills and allows us to share healthy traditions.

Ditch juice and give your kids water to drink

Water artfully pours into a clear glass tumbler.
Canada’s Food Guide now recommends that adults and children make water their primary drink. Photo by Kobu Agency on Unsplash.

Canada’s new food guide puts drinking water front and center in its recommendations, especially for children. 

That news may surprise some parents. Nutritionists and doctors have advised against giving children sugar-heavy drinks like soda for several years. But juice and milk have been staples of food guides in the past.

Yet, the new food guide recommends that Canadian families avoid all drinks that are high in sugar. That includes juice.

What about milk? Dairy is now considered a protein and not an independent category. Drinking milk should be considered against other protein consumption in the diet.

While there is some disagreement about some of these new guidelines, researchers like Yoni Freedhoff have argued that juice and milk may become gateway drinks to pop.

Eating well is a lifelong journey

Vegetables, including spinach, avocado, grape tomatoes, mushrooms and scallions--are arranged with two eggs on a wooden cutting board with a kitchen knife on top of a backdrop of grey tiles. A cooking pan lies partially across the top of the photo.
Canada’s Food Guide now recommends that you eat a rainbow of fruit and vegetables, rather than focusing on food groups. Photo by Katie Smith on Unsplash.

I get a lot of questions from my patients about how the new food guide should influence the choices they make for their families.

It’s important to remember that guidelines are not laws. Instead, they provide educated instruction that each individual should interpret. If you have questions, you should always talk to the doctors and medical professionals who know your history and health needs best.

Also, Health Canada’s recommendations reflect recent changes in medical and scientific research. By adding new discussion areas to the guide, Health Canada is asking us to consider new ideas, such as the important of eating with family, that haven’t had a lot of airtime in previous versions.

What is Health Canada’s goal in updating the guide? In general, they want to help Canadians to:

  1. Improve our personal health.
  2. Make decisions that will help us to meet our nutrient needs.
  3. Reduce the real risk of nutrition-related chronic diseases and conditions.

While these are lofty but important goals, we still need to make Canada’s Food Guide apply to our own lives. You can use the information it contains as a stepping stone to avoiding the disordered eating patterns I see in patients every day.

So, the food guide serves as a great reminder to be proactive about our eating habits as we grow and age. To have a healthy life, it’s important to be proactive about food. A meal is a process, not just an end result.

By sharing meals, play and conversation with others, we’ll all learn to make better choices for our health.

What role does food play in your family?

What recipes do you enjoy making with your family? Have you added cooking experiences to your Family or Child collections in LifeTales? We’d love to learn more. Drop us a line at hello@lifetales.com.

Do you have professional expertise of value to families? Would you like your expertise featured on our blog? Send your pitch to hello@lifetales.com. Please note we can’t respond to all inquiries. But we will be in touch if there’s a fit.