Written by Prof. Avi Sadah
Sleep is a basic physiological need required for physical recovery, re-invigoration, body growth, brain maturation, learning and memory. Chronic and sustained sleep deprivation can lead to exhaustion, physical damage to body tissues, dysfunction of the immune system, severe stress and even death.
The growth hormone, the one responsible for a baby’s physical growth, is secreted mostly during the deep stages of a baby’s sleep. A severe sleep disorder could, therefore, lead to insufficient secretion of this hormone and to compromised body maturation.
When a baby suddenly becomes active during sleep — her breathing becomes uneven, her eyes dart from side to side, and she smiles and grimaces – it means she is in a unique stage of sleep — Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep. This stage is associated with dreaming. Babies spend as much as 50 percent of their sleep in REM sleep, which is very important for brain maturation, learning and development. A baby is born with about 30 percent of her full brain size, and during the first 3 years, the brain grows very rapidly — to almost its full adult size. It is believed that REM sleep is an essential stage that facilitates brain growth, which is why babies spend so much time of their infancy in this unique sleep stage. We also know that during REM sleep, the brain “digests” and stores all the information that bombards a baby during the wakeful hours. Disruptions to their REM sleep could lead to the compromised learning of all the smart things we teach our babies when they are awake and alert.
Time to Sleep
When babies don’t get enough sleep, or if their sleep is disrupted, they tend to be very agitated, nervous, hyperactive, and difficult to manage or soothe. Most parents experience these situations when their baby reaches the time she needs to go to sleep. These signs present important information for parents, telling them when their baby is ready for sleep. Many parents know that when they miss their baby’s sleep time, it could become much harder for her to calm down and fall asleep. This is because their baby, like an adult, has an internal biological clock that makes it easy to fall asleep at certain times, and difficult to fall asleep at others. Keeping to a regular schedule and a relatively constant bedtime helps the baby (and her parents) to regulate the biological clock and develop healthy sleep patterns.