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How Well a Baby Sleeps Affects the Development of Key Brain Functions

Posted Feb 11 2011 3:16pm

Both children and adults need a good night sleep to function at their best. A recent study , summarized here , suggests that this is true for babies too: How much sleep a 12 month old baby gets can influence the development of his/her executive functions. Executive functions, supported by the frontal lobes of the brain, are often considered as indicators of children’s likelihood of succeeding in school. They involve decision-making, problem-solving, plan­ning, inhibit­ing, as well as other high-level func­tions (social behav­ior, emo­tional con­trol, work­ing mem­ory, etc.).

Researchers asked parents to complete three-day sleep journals when their infants were 12 and 18 months.[…] three variables were identified: total hours of sleep, percentage of total sleep occurring between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. and sleep fragmentation.

When the children reached 18 and 26 months of age, researchers gave the toddlers a battery of tests to assess their executive functions and general cognitive ability.

Children with a higher percentage of sleep during the night were further along in the development of their executive functioning

Comments: Interesting results! Let’s note though that the study is reporting correlations. Although the authors report that the results held “above family socioeconomic status, prior mental development and concurrent verbal ability” the possibility that a factor other than sleep may have been influencing the development of executive functions in these children cannot be completely ruled out. The direction of a correlation is never clear either: It could be that children with higher executive functions (in particular impulse control) are better able to fall asleep and thus get more sleep than children with lower executive functions.

Related article: Top 10 Q&A about Child’s Brain Development

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