Brain Development and Poor Sleep

Brain Development and Poor Sleep

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How Thr Lack Of Sleep Affects A Baby’s Brain Development And Personality

model of a brain with info
Brain needs info to function

This article is going to be a bit more technical than others that we have posted. Yet it is still important to understnad some of the issues that your child is facing. Chidrens brain development is based on both genetic and environmental factors. This is a complex picture that is beyond the scope of this post. But the main concept is that children have inborn traits and traits that they learn. At times these traits can be undesirable for the parents. Parents try to fight these traits, but often discover that it is a losing battle. The difference between a parents expectations and the childs traits influences the relationship.

As an example of this, a very active child may be adored by a parent who identifies with this trait. In conrast they will only be tolerated by a who expects a calmer child. Yet, a quiet child may be considered depressive or lifeless by the first parent. But the second parent sees them as perfect. Differences between parental expectations and the child’s traits may lead to frustration. This is particularly the case if the parents try to get the child to conform to their expectations.

The Relationship Between Temperament And Sleep

All parents are able to recognize when their child is up past their bedtime. When asked, some parents said that the child calms down, seems sleepy, falls asleep on his own, or asks to go to bed. Other parents said that their child becomes more active, emotional, or naughty. Young children react to tiredness in different ways.

baby sleeping white cotton
Baby sleeping on white cotton blanket

Tiredness is not always expressed by decreased activity and obvious sleepiness. Sometimes it can have the opposite effect on the child. Some of the negative behaviors of the tired child are like thise seen in behavior disorders. Evidence points to a correlation between sleep and personality traits. Studies show that babies who have sleep disorders tend to be difficult in other domains.

To explore this, scientists looked at a group of babies up to 2 years of age. The parents of these children had sought help with their child’s sleep. There was a comparison of these children to a group of babies without sleep disorder. The parents completed a temperament questionnaire (a sort personality test for young children). Generally, parents of babies with sleep problems described them using more negative traits.

One of the traits measured is how the child responds to stimulation. Some babies are very sensitive to all sensory stimulus. Others are sensitive only to a specific type of sensation. Yet other babies do not respond in an outstanding way to sensory stimuli. In 1974 William Carey found that babies who are hypersensitive to sensory stimuli tend to develop sleep difficulties.

To fall asleep, the baby has to learn to stop responding to people, noise, light, and temperature. Further they need to ignore internal signals as well, such as pain, discomfort, and hunger. The ability to ignore these is most critical for maintaining uninterrupted sleep. A baby who is sensitive from birth to any stimulus will have trouble relaxing and falling asleep. Also they will awaken frequently over the course of the night.

This correlation between sleep and behavior continues throughout later childhood. Sleep disorders are a prominent sign of mental illness and adaptation problems. For example, the diagnosis of anxiety strengthens in the presence of sleep issues.

boy learning key development milestone with block stacking
Boy stacking blocks for development

The correlation between sleep disorders and behavior problems is multi-factorial. A child born with a tendency toward problematic behavior may develop sleep problems. But insufficient sleep often leads to the child developing behavious issues. Additionally, incompatible parenting patterns, may provoke or aggravate behavior problems and sleep difficulties.

Often sleep disruption appears to lead to hyperactive behavior patterns. Yet, no research has confirmed this. More evidence demonstrates that lack of sleep may cause behavior that resembles hyperactivity. From an intuitive perspective we can all recall methods we use to keep ourselves awake. These include increasing activity, fidgeting, and similar strategies. This pattern is opposite to the expectation that the tired child will relax and slow down. It is important to examine if the sleep disorder is the source and not the outcome of the hyperactivity. It is thus essential to treat the sleep issue first before addressing the behaviour. This may then avoid avoid unnecessary treatment.

But some children respond to poor sleep with features that look like depression. In this case the sleep difficulties appear as related to the depression. Such a diagnosis can result in a failure to detect and treat a sleep disorder. It can also result in unnecessary treatment for depression. When you treat the sleep disorder there is a loss of the depressive symptoms.

Intellectual and Brain Development

Assessing intelligence in infancy is a very complex task. Tests used on infants to assess mental abilities have failed to predict intelligence. The affect of sleep on brain development is thus are to measure. Efforts to study this issue have failed to provide a clear picture of the situation. We need extra studies on older children and adults to help us consider the issue more.

Scientists from the University of Connecticut examined this question. They studied babies sleep over the first 2 days of life. The scientists then tested the mental abilities of the babies at the age of six months. They found a link between sleep on the first day of life and their development six months later.

child learning to read a book
Boy learning to read

Studies on older children have shown that poor sleep reduces attention and concentration. People who don’t get enough sleep react slower. They also make more mistakes on tasks that demand attention and concentration. From indirect approaches, similar effects have seen in infants.
For example, parents described babies who suffered from sleep problems as poor concentrators. This is particularly seen with activities for extended periods of time. Also, minor distractions result in loss of concentration.

child learning and writing
Girl learning to write in her notebook

The relationship between sleep patterns and concentration in school-aged children was also evaluated. Examination of the childrens sleep patterns was related to their learning functions. They found that children with poor quality sleep also had decreased attention. This suggests that sleep disorders impact functions for learning and brain development. This also suggests that there may be a decrease in academic achievement. Further, reduction in concentration occurs when chidren with normal sleep patterns sleep less. It then follows that infants with poor sleep will have reduced concentration


Bedtime and sleeping can be a difficult time for babies and parents alike. Babies have difficulty in learning how to get to sleep and how to respond to sleep triggers. This can lead to poor sleep for both the baby and parents. Some children develop sleep disorders that can affect their ability to concentrate. Also, some of the features of sleep disorders may look like behaviour problems. This can then lead to improper care. Evidence suggests that sleep is important for brain development and intelligence. It is thus important to ensure your child is sleeping well. Any problems need to addressing early on.

Our next post will be focussing on strategies you can use to help your child get to sleep easier. We aim for these strategies to help improve your childs sleep. By improving their sleep now you are helping them function better in the future.

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