Watching your baby sleep peacefully is one of the joys of becoming a parent. But have you ever wondered what is happening in this little sleepy head’s mind?
Given that babies spend more than half of their time asleep, 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.
Dr Sabine Seehagen, a developmental psychologist working at the University of Waikato, is keen to find out more about the importance of sleep for young minds. She has been awarded a $300,000 Marsden fast-start grant from the Royal Society of New Zealand to find out how sleep might help infants to build, retain, and further process, emotional memories.
Starting in March 2017, the research project will continue for three years. In a series of studies, Dr Seehagen 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 encourages 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.