Can Great Sleep Habits Make Your Baby Smarter?

Subtext: Read on for 3 key reasons sleep can boost your little smarty-pants’ brain power.

Sleep is important for so many things. As adults (and probably occasionally when we were children), we’ve all had the experience of feeling “off,” irritated and downright loopy from lack of sleep. And we all know that great feeling of mental clarity when we’ve had our 40 winks.

According to research, consistent sleep is even more important for children than for adults. That’s because your infant, toddler or preschool-age child’s brain development is cranked up as compared to her later years.

But what if your child just won’t sleep? Should you worry - or is there something you can do to help your child sleep better and ultimately, be smarter?

I’ve reviewed the available research and have linked studies for you to read more details at your leisure. For now, I’ll get down to what you really want (and need) to know about sleep habits and your baby’s brain.

(P.s.: If you have a non-sleeper like I did, don’t panic! Check out What to Do if Your Child Won’t Sleep below.)

Three Ways Sleep Boosts Your Baby’s Brain Power
There are three main points that have been studied that tie into clearer thinking and better IQ development in children. They are:

1. Cognition and Executive Function
Cognition is, of course, thinking and understanding things. Executive function means planning, organizing and completing tasks.

According to studies that measure IQ and school performance, children who have had consistent sleep during their early years perform better mentally. And while IQ isn’t the be-all and end-all of measuring every type of intelligence, it’s a baseline that shows how important sleep can be.

Most studies are on children age 4 and over, but more and more research is being done on much younger children. The idea is that the brain is more “plastic” in infancy and early childhood. Most show consistency as key in the equation, which underlines how great sleep habits might help your child’s developing brain. (More on that in a moment.)

2. Memory
Can’t remember where you put your car keys? Left your cell phone on the toilet tank? Perhaps you had too little sleep. The struggle is real; there’s a ton of research out there on sleep and memory function.

In babies, some sleep stages enhance the brain’s ability to form and retain memories. And while memory issues from poor sleep habits may not be permanent, it’s important for your child’s learning that she start off on the right foot.

It’s interesting to note that once again, the studies underlie how consistency is key more so than the total quantity of sleep. Develop great sleep habits for your baby and she’ll be the best she can be.

3. Language
Not every great sleeper starts speaking early, and there are plenty of fussy babies who are early talkers. There’s quite a bit that goes into your baby learning to both understand and speak language.

However, great sleep habits can give your baby a leg up on language. In one very cool study, 15-month-olds who were taught an artificial language spoke this language better if they napped regularly.

Language is important because it helps your baby learn even more. The more specific she can get with her questions and curiosity, the more information you can give her. It’s a positive loop of learning-speaking-receiving answers-learning more.

What to Do if Your Child Won’t Sleep
Let me preface this by saying that a parent’s version (and even official versions) of “enough” sleep vary. Amazingly, recommendations for a baby’s amount of sleep go back more than a century –– and are debated to this day.

Here are a few things to do to keep baby and you more relaxed, and to help you help your child’s brain develop so she’s the smarty-pants you already know she is.

1. Don’t panic. Sleep stages (especially REM sleep) are important to certain brain functions, but remember that stress can have a big influence, too. It can also impact whether your child can relax and go to sleep. The most important thing you can do for your child’s physical, emotional and brain health is to remember that every baby is different. If she’s healthy, your child will continue to develop if you’re keeping her safe and stimulating her during the day.
2. Start right now with a routine. I’ve already said it but I’ll say it again: study after study shows that consistency is the most important factor in your baby’s development. And your child will eventually sleep better as her subconscious will grab onto the cues that it’s time for bed. Give her a relaxing bath, read her a story, do some silly but not overly-stimulating thing. Develop an uncomplicated, consistent routine and you should ultimately see results.
3. Take your child to the doctor to rule out anything physical or developmental. I know...that’s scary. Chances are that your child is just fine. She’s an individual, and her sleep will be individual, too. A visit to the doctor can help you realize you’re on the right track. Or the doctor may find some issue such as GERD (acid reflux) that can easily be remedied so your child can sleep better at night.
4. Keep your focus on the positive. If your child has one great night’s sleep (or even a long nap), pat yourself on the back. I promise there will be more of them. Also remember that even if your child is a rather difficult sleeper, there are other factors that can help her developing mind. Consistency, security, diet and stimulation (like reading and playing) all help, too.
5. Don’t wake your baby at night. Yes, I can hear you laughing from here! However, some parents worry that their child might not be eating enough, so they wake the baby for a feeding. Or they may be uncomfortable the first time their child sleeps through the night –– is something wrong? As long as the pediatrician has given your child a clean bill of health, get a great baby monitor and peek at it frequently until you feel more comfortable.

Feeling more relaxed? Great – that’s the most important factor! Sleep is a habit like any other habit. Nurture great habits in your baby and she’ll have the best start possible.

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