New research shows that sleep affects language development and memory processing in babies
Sleep is essential to the health and general well-being of humans, and new research shows that sleep also has a significant impact on infant development. Establishing a sleep schedule for infants could have far greater benefits than providing quiet time for caregivers and better moods for the babies. Learn more about how sleep can have a positive influence on infant development.
A good nap
Sleep plays a crucial role in children’s overall development and is a pressing concern for many parents. A healthy infant sleep schedule can reduce symptoms of depression in mothers, which can affect the general well-being of babies. The positive benefits of sleeping through the night are well documented and include increased emotional regulation, attention, memory, executive function, and, most recently, language development.
Recent research at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, showed that infants can associate meanings to words far sooner than previously thought, and sleep played a significant role in securing these connections.
Scientists showed make-believe objects to infants between six and eight months old and assigned made-up words, such as zuser and bofel, to the objects. Imaginary names were used to eliminate the possibility of babies having prior knowledge of the words or items.
Objects that were similar with minor variations in color or form were given the same names – for example, how trees are all called trees regardless of their specific classification or differences.
In the morning, brain studies showed that babies could not associate an object with something similar – they did not recognize a new bofel regardless of its similarities to others. However, after a long afternoon nap, something changed; babies who had napped well could distinguish the names they’d learned during morning sessions. Infants who had stayed awake or had had a shorter nap couldn’t connect the word with its object. The results suggest that sleep gives babies’ brains the opportunity to commit new information to their memories.
There are four stages of sleep: one, two, three, and REM. The second stage appears to have the biggest impact on language development and involves a lighter sleep that allows the brain to commit new information to long-term memory. Babies who had taken a 50-minute nap showed brain reactions previously seen only in older children and adults. So, although the brain structures that store word meanings in long-term memory are not yet fully formed, babies are still able to use this part of the brain more than previously understood or expected.
The evidence of advanced language processing in infants who took a 50-minute nap shows that a proper sleep schedule has a range of benefits, some of which we may not fully understand. Babies thrive on a regular and predictable routine, and it is important to incorporate opportunities for quiet time so that babies can get the rest they need to learn and grow.
The Virginia Infant & Toddler Specialist Network helps improve the quality of care for infants and toddlers through extensive resources, services, and education for caregivers. Learn more about how we can help you improve the standard of care.