The importance of sleep for young minds

13 March 2017
Child sleeping

New research underway at the University of Waikato aims to untap the mystery of infant sleep and identify how infants build, retain, and process, emotional memories.

Babies spend more than half of their time asleep, but surprisingly little is known about the role of snoozing for their learning and memory. Only recently have researchers begun to discover that even at a young age “sleeping on it” after a learning experience helps babies to retain their memories over time.  

University of Waikato developmental psychologist, Dr Sabine Seehagen, througha  series of studies which will look at how babies learn and keep new information in their memory, depending on when learning happens during the sleep-wake-cycle, for example, shortly before or after a nap.

She also seeks to find out if sleep plays a role in how infants deal with potentially emotional experiences that are typical for their daily life, such as trying to work out a difficult novel toy.

“I use quick playful activities to find out more about how babies think. For example, we play imitation games or I show pictures of faces with different emotional expressions,” says Dr Seehagen.

“Since starting research on babies’ development here, the young families in the Waikato have been fantastic and very generous with their time. I will soon be sending out newsletters with the first results from last year’s research. Now, with the support of the Marsden funding, I'm looking for more families who might be interested in taking part,” she says.

Dr Seehagen mainly works with six to 18-month-old babies but as the research will be ongoing for the next few years, she wants to hear from families with younger babies to register their interest as well. “We will get in touch when the baby is at the right age for our current study and explain more to see if families are still keen to take part.”

All participating babies receive a certificate and a small toy and parents can choose to receive a newsletter that describes the study results.

Families are invited to register their interest in taking part at www.waikato.ac.nz/fass/weds or to contact Dr Seehagen at sabine.seehagen@waikato.ac.nz