Children’s sleep time can tell you about their brain development

According to a study conducted by the University of East Anglia (UEA), parents can breathe a sigh of relief when it comes to their children’s bedtime. The study provides valuable insights into the relationship between sleep patterns and children’s early learning and provides reassurance to parents who are worried about their child’s sleep habits.

The aim of the study was to find out how sleep frequency and duration can reflect a child’s cognitive development and needs. The findings suggest that sleep frequency is closely related to a child’s cognitive needs. Some infants consolidate information more efficiently during sleep, allowing them to sleep less frequently, while other infants with smaller vocabularies and lower cognitive skills may need more frequent sleep.

Dr. Theodora Gliga, the lead researcher on the project, emphasizes that parents should not worry about their child’s sleep schedule. She explains, “Parents worry that their children don’t sleep as much as they should for their age, or sleep too often and for too long, but our study shows that a child’s sleep frequency reflects their individual cognitive needs.”

Dr. Gliga also highlights the relationship between cognitive function and sleep frequency. Children with smaller vocabularies or lower executive function scores tend to sleep more often. However, she encourages parents to trust the natural flow of a child’s need for sleep, stating, “Young children will sleep as much as they need and should be allowed to do so.”

For the study, the sleep habits of 463 infants between the ages of eight months and three years were monitored during school closures in 2020. Parents were surveyed about their children’s sleep patterns, concentration, memory retention and language abilities. Socioeconomic factors such as zip code, income, education level, and the amount of screen time and outdoor activities the child was exposed to were also taken into account.

Dr. Gliga explains that the nursery closures provided a unique opportunity to study children’s internal sleep needs. Closed nurseries were less likely to disrupt their natural sleep patterns. The results of the study showed that daytime sleep patterns served as an indicator of cognitive development. Infants who slept more frequently, but shorter than they should for their age, had smaller vocabularies and lower cognitive function. Interestingly, this negative relationship between vocabulary and sleep frequency was stronger in older children.

Although most parents reported that their children’s sleep was not affected by blocking, children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds were more likely to report worse sleep. This emphasizes the importance of considering socioeconomic factors when studying children’s sleep patterns and cognitive development.

In conclusion, this pioneering study provides valuable insights into the relationship between infants’ sleep patterns and their cognitive development. It reassures parents that their child’s sleep timing reflects their individual cognitive needs and encourages them to trust the natural course of their child’s developing sleep habits. By understanding the link between sleep and infant learning, parents can reduce their anxieties and support their child’s optimal development.

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