Sleep and the Developing Child Brain

The medical community has long recognized that the relationship between sleep and the developing brain in young infants and children is important. A greater understanding of sleep and the developing brain is still a work in progress because a lot of research focuses on adults. However, Fan Jiang, MD, PhD, who practices at Shanghai Children’s Medical Center at the Shanghai Jiao Tong University School of Medicine, has collected a healthy body of research investigating how sleep impacts the development in infants and young children.

Dr. Jiang’s evidence-based discoveries are capturing a great deal of attention among early childhood experts. Her findings suggest that quality sleep in infants and young children directly impacts mental and behavioral health factors. Studies show that 90% of a child’s brain development occurs before the age of five, and that quality sleep assists the future stages of many critical areas of development.

Consequently, early childhood development experts are looking closely at future research opportunities to help parents and caregivers develop proactive sleep regimens in their children to promote better outcomes later in life.

We know that a baby’s brain is flexible – meaning that the baby’s brain is always responding to and learning from cues in their environment. A good example might be crying to indicate hunger, followed by gaining access to breast feeding. Another example is responding to touch and sound which may be seen in subtle facial expressions or reaching for a parent.

Sleep duration and quality influence brain development in infants. The two main stages of sleep are REM sleep and non-REM sleep or (NREM). REM is an acronym for rapid eye movement. In NREM, the body functions slow down dramatically and the body temperature > drops signaling the body is about to experience deep relaxation, slowed breathing, and enter the deep sleep stage or REM sleep.

The REM stage of sleep is where dreaming occurs. It is characterized by rapid eye movement, bursts of brain activity enhancing connectivity within the central nervous system where many important body functions originate, such as: language, emotional output, behavior, and learning.

Clinical observation studies show that poor sleep may pose a risk factor for language development in young children. You may be wondering what poor sleep in infants and young children may look like. Lack of quality sleep cycles are shown in frequent awakenings, disturbed sleep cycles, and/ or frequent interruptions preventing long durations of sleep.

Studies show that 90% of a child’s brain development occurs before the age of five, and that quality sleep assists the future stages of many critical areas of development.

One million new neural connections are formed every second in the infant brain and sleep plays an important role in cognitive and psychosocial development in early life.

Napping is shown to benefit memory in infants as young as 6 months old. Napping is essential for infants and young children. Even shorter nap durations lasting only 30 minutes, researchers find, allow the brain to collect and organize crucial bits of information. Napping allows babies to form cognitive functions such as generalizations (recognizing similarities in people and objects) and the ability to respond to them in a logical manner.

Poor sleep quality in infants, toddlers, and young adults is linked to problems in mental health and emotional development. Dr. Jiang highlights through observational and long-term studies how disturbed sleep cycles can alter responses to real-world scenarios in adulthood. Early depressive episodes, the inability to self-regulate, and socially engage were prevalent in participants with known sleep disturbances in their early childhood.

Quality sleep patterns are linked to greater creativity and may cultivate novel insights. Many first-hand accountings detail how sudden breakthroughs and profound points of knowledge were realized during the stages associated with deep sleep. Individuals would awaken to find that their dreams unlocked graphic visualizations and solutions to certain problems areas of their lives. The sleep phenomenon of waking early during the night with bouts of insight is experienced by many.

Though there is much to conclude from existing research, we need to gather more definitive evidence about the cause and effect of sleep in young children. Dr. Jiang points out how overcoming certain challenges may be required, as designing a device that more effectively images the brain activity in infants and young children. She also urges the scientific community to develop more clinical studies in this sector to foster a greater understanding of the causes related to inadequate sleep and what it could mean in the long term. The answers to these riddles may hold the keys to preventing degenerative brain functions like dementia.

 Candace Kastanis is a freelance health and scientific writer, specializing in health advocacy, rare disease, health equity, translational and integrative medicine.


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