Sleeping for the brain?

Hi, I’m Dr Louisa Gossé and I have just finished my PhD at the Birkbeck Babylab. My PhD was all about baby sleep. It’s always been crazy to me that we fall unconscious every night and wake up 8 (if everything goes well) hours later feeling refreshed (hopefully). By now researchers have found out that sleep for us adults is absolutely crucial, for example, for remembering and learning information, for paying attention or for our immune system.

But what was really interesting to me is how different a baby’s sleep is from our own sleep. Surely, I thought, that must mean something about it is especially important in development.


So, why do babies sleep up to 18 hours a day but never when we want them to sleep? How come they wake up so many times a night? And why are some babies fantastic sleepers while others struggle to sleep? And maybe most importantly: does sleep truly matter for their development?


That was the topic I set out to study during my PhD. I wanted to try and understand the relationship between sleep and development in the first year of life. To do this I conducted a large, study over a long time with babies using many different methods to assess development as well as sleep.


We found out that typical infant sleep patterns vary widely but generally have little impact on behavioural development, as measured by parent-report and eye-tracking measures. However, sleep did seem to impact brain measures of development. In particular, worse sleep quality (the amount of time spent awake at night) was related to specific patterns of brain activity. We think that night-time wakenings could potentially disrupt whatever is happening during sleep in a baby’s brain.


But what exactly that is, is still poorly understood. Therefore, I conducted a second study where the goal was to understand what occurs in the brain during poor versus normal sleep in babies. To study this question I developed a bespoke, wireless neuroimaging headgear that can tell us about sleep and brain development at the same time. The headgear was built with sensors attached to a soft cap that is specially made to be comfortable to wear for babies while they are sleeping. While wearing the cap, the babies napped in our lab at the Birkbeck Babylab. When they wake up, we show them some videos while we measure which information they pay attention to with the help of an eye-tracker. I also collected information on how well the babies usually sleep.



But unfortunately, my study got interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, so we have no final results just yet, but the data so far seems to show differences in baby brain activity during a nap. The next step is going to be to relate those differences to their sleep quality, which is what we will be able to do once we have collected some more data.


To sum up, a baby’s sleep could maybe be important for their brain but maybe not so much that we would actually see differences at the behaviour level!


What are some tips to help your baby sleep better? That depends very much on their age and also on the family’s environment but a fixed, calming bedtime routine without exposure to electronic devices is always a good step towards improved sleep for both baby AND parent. For further tips the following webpage: www.babysleep.com is a great science- and clinician-backed resource about child sleep at every age.



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