When A. was around 4-5 months old DH and I realized that we really needed a better bedtime routine. She was going to bed whenever she was tired and then we'd collapse on the couch for a bit before getting up to do all those things that you can't do when you are busy holding a baby all day (like cooking dinner). At that point our bedtime routine basically entailed giving her a bath and then rocking/nursing her until she was almost asleep. At that point we'd set her in her bassinet and stay with her until we knew she was asleep. It worked, but the whole thing just felt like a chore. At the time we were also both really tired and not having much fun. We got to talking about how to make it better and decided that we really needed to start reading A. a bedtime story. (The exact details of how we decided that a lack of a bedtime story was the root of the problem are rather blurry now due to the lack of sleep...) The question became what to read her for a bedtime story. We'd tried having one book that was her standard story, but that got boring really fast so we decided to try reading her "real" books. I think we started with Anne of Green Gables because I'd been telling DH how much I liked it and how I couldn't wait until A. was old enough to read it with me. Suddenly DH and I were having a great time because he would read while I nursed A and then after we put her to bed we'd sit (or stand and work together) and talk about the book.
As A. got better at eating solid foods we expanded the routine. From the time she was able to fling food in the general direction of her mouth the routine has been to eat dinner as a family (which would frequently mean DH and I taking turns feeding A. and eating ourselves trying to finish before the food got cold). Then DH will take A. in and bathe her while I got my first real break of the day, this was especially important when she was just starting to eat solids because she would be covered in food. We were lucky in that it was warm when she started to really feed herself a lot so we would just strip her down to a diaper before dinner and then let her have fun knowing that the floor would mop and she would wash. After her bath we dress her in her PJs and then all sit on the couch and snuggle while DH reads a chapter from the book we are working on. When she was little I would use this time to nurse her so that she'd be nice and full before bed, now she likes to either play quietly or snuggle depending on how tired she is. The story gives us all a chance to wind down our day together and A. is generally ready to go to bed right after. Within a few minutes she is asleep and DH and I can enjoy the rest of the evening together.
I don't know why it took me so long to think of reading real books to A. because it is a great solution for our family. However, it also seems like it isn't something that is commonly done so maybe that's why. We don't try to force her to listen, we simply ask that she be relatively quiet while DH is reading. If she is having trouble being quiet we offer her the chance to go to bed and finish later. Sometimes she asks for bed, but mostly she quiets down and snuggles with us while DH finishes. We aren't trying to turn her into some sort of super genius or anything, but I do hope she will learn to love books and the stories they tell. Lately she's been really into having me read her picture books, I've actually had to set a limit on the number of books I'll read her each day because I want her to play on her own too. I don't know if it is because she likes the books, or the cuddling or that the love of reading is sinking in, but whatever it is she's asking for it.
All that being said, it is hard sometimes to find a good book for a toddler. She isn't old enough to really talk through dark parts of a book, but she is old enough to actually listen and understand most of what is going on. Simpler books tend to be easier for her to understand, but if they are too simple DH and I don't enjoy them as much. We are hoping to be able to continue the tradition of a family bedtime story until our kids are at least mostly grown and since we are obviously planning on more kids than just A. being there to enjoy the stories we will probably be going back to revisit old favorites at various points. At the same time it would be nice to have a good variety of books on our list. So far we have read the entire Anne of Green Gables series, Little Women, Little Men and Watership Down. We are currently reading Little House in the Big Woods. We are currently debating whether or not to continue with the Little House series or if we should read Wind in the Willows next. Any thoughts from my literary friends? Also, does anyone have any suggestions on other books we should add to our list? I'd love any suggestions I can get.