Mother’s Sleep May Boost Baby’s Brain Development

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Sleep is important for babies to grow healthy and strong, but a fascinating study has found that sleep also has a powerful impact on infants’ ability to remember the names of objects, form categories and sort new similar objects into learned groups. During sleep, infants’ memories pass through different stages that lead to vocabulary development and babies learn to first associate words with what they mean rather than just random noise. And they can do this much earlier than was thought possible — as early as 6 to 8 months of age.

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, introduced 6- to 8-month-old infants to pictures of made-up objects and assigned them invented names such as “Bofel” or “Zuser.” (The scientists used fictitious objects and names to make sure the babies wouldn’t have been exposed to any of these images or words in real life.) Some of the objects differed slightly from one another — such as being a different colour — but were still given the same name (like the way cats are still called cats, even though they may have different characteristics).

Brain activity, which was measured using electroencephalograms (EEGs), showed that the babies were not able to connect new object of the same category.

The Powerful Effect of Sleep on Learning

Sleep made a remarkable difference. Babies who had a short nap (about 30 minutes) after the learning portion of the experiment could tell the difference between the right and wrong word for an object, indicating that they consolidated what they learned while they slept. Babies who did not take a nap were unable to do this. But how much they slept had an even more significant impact.

For babies who’d had a longer nap — about 50 minutes — it was a very different result. These babies showed a brain reaction that was similar to that of older children and adults, meaning they could identify a bofel even if it was a different colour from the original bofel they learned about. This study showed that the longer infants spent time in a deeper state of sleep, the better their ability was to really learn the meaning of words.

Babies constantly process unfamiliar information; for them, everything is new. Their brains organize everything they take in, collect and sort them into categories and save information in their long-term memory. And as this research shows, getting enough sleep seems to be a crucial part of this process. “Only during sleep, when the child’s brain is disconnected from the outer world, can it filter and save essential relations,” says lead study author Manuela Friedrich. “Only during the interaction between awake exploration and ordering processes while sleeping can early cognitive and linguistic capabilities develop properly.”

So go ahead and read lots of books to your babies and teach them the names of things all around them, as you normally would. And be sure to give them lots of minds- and memory-boosting naps to help them learn it all. This study shows that sleep — which is known to improve reorganization of memories — can deepen understanding of words, even in infants as young as 6 months old.

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