When children fall ill, parents can often feel helpless. But there is one thing mum and dad can easily do, and it has been found to be especially effective when children are under the weather: Read them a story.
Click start to play today’s Crossword, where you can identify childhood illnesses that perhaps you yourself once went through.
Whether they involve stories of heroic adventure, space exploration or folk tales, reading books to children at bedtime has long been associated with creating a cocoon of safety so that they are able to comfortably drift off to sleep. But a new study now shows that stories can also help relieve symptoms of pain and illness.
An April 2021 study published in the US-based journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that storytelling increases levels of oxytocin – the ‘love’ hormone – and helps reduce cortisol, which is a hormone released during stress. Researchers selected 81 children between two and seven years old, from the intensive care unit (ICU) of a hospital in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The children were hospitalised for asthma, bronchitis or pneumonia. Storytellers were assigned to half the group, and they read to them for 30 minutes. The other group were given riddles by the same professionals, for the same duration.
The researchers found that the outcomes were positive for both groups, since they both experienced reduced stress, and their sensations of pain and discomfort also dropped. But in the case of storytelling, the impact was twice as strong as telling children riddles.
What’s more, children in the storytelling group showed more positive emotions when seeing the hospital, nurse, or doctor afterwards. By reducing their fears and discomfort in the ICU, their mental health improved.
The findings of the study have implications for children who experience environmental stress – like young people in ICUs or children who have faced disruptions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The study also provides real evidence of the benefits of reading to hospitals, which could use storytelling as an inexpensive and effective way to make a positive difference for children who are hospitalised.