Sleep and memory – Are they connected?

27 May 2016

Sabine Seehagen

Dr Sabine Seehagen (right) is seeking families with young children to assist her with her research.

Have you ever wondered how a baby’s mind works? How babies and young children manage to learn and remember information about the world around them?

During the first years of life, development happens at an impressive speed. With the help of families living in and around Hamilton, developmental psychologist Dr Sabine Seehagen from the University of Waikato seeks to develop a better understanding of the changes that happen in infancy and early childhood.

In a recent study conducted with her colleagues from the University of Sheffield in England and Ruhr-Universität Bochum, Germany, where she was then based, Dr Seehagen used an imitation procedure to explore the role of sleep for early memory. “Infants are born imitators, and we can benefit from their interest in copying other people’s actions when studying what they remember about them," says Dr Seehagen.

Using an experimental design that assessed declarative memories, that is, memories for facts and events, the researchers concluded that sleeping after learning appeared to be important for infants' long-term memories. “We studied more than 200 infants aged six and 12 months. We visited each infant twice in their home, either shortly after the infant had slept or just before they were expected to fall asleep, always following their natural sleeping patterns,” says Dr Seehagen.

“Most people would assume that being wide awake is best for learning, but this study showed that events occurring relatively close to sleep time may be remembered particularly well by infants,” she says.

Dr Seehagen is now keen to extend this research, to fully understand the role sleep plays in retaining memory.  “I want to know how sleep helps infants to remember different types of information, and why sleep only strengthens some memories and manages to lose others,” she says.

“In addition to exploring the role of sleep, I am also aiming to explore further aspects of learning, such as when do young children start to put themselves in someone else’s position and distinguish their own opinions from others, and how do infants learn from different media, such as television and picture books,” she says.

She is looking to recruit families with children aged between six months and five years old to participate in her research. “The more we know about how babies and young children think, feel, and interact with other people, the more we’ll be able to create environments and situations that help them learn,” she says.

Families are invited to register their interest in taking part in the research at or to contact Dr Seehagen for more information at [email protected].

Examples of how the research works can be viewed here.

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