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Sleep for Brain Development for Babies and Small Children

Updated: Jun 15

We are all now aware of the impact of sleep and its role as a crucial component of a healthy lifestyle, especially for babies and small children. During the early years of life, a child's brain undergoes rapid development, making sleep an essential part of their growth and well-being. Understanding the importance of sleep in brain development can help parents and caregivers ensure their children get the rest they need for optimal growth.

The Science of Sleep and Brain Development

  1. Neural Connections and Synaptic Pruning:

  • In the first few years of life, a baby's brain forms millions of neural connections. Sleep facilitates the creation of these connections, aiding in the development of cognitive and motor skills.

  • During sleep, especially deep sleep, the brain undergoes synaptic pruning, eliminating unnecessary neural connections. This process refines and strengthens the remaining connections, enhancing brain efficiency.

  1. Memory Consolidation:

  • Sleep plays a significant role in consolidating memories. Babies and young children constantly learn new things, and sleep helps solidify these new memories, aiding in long-term retention and learning.

  • Both rapid eye movement (REM) and non-REM sleep are essential for different types of memory processing. REM sleep is particularly important for procedural memory, which includes skills and habits, while non-REM sleep is crucial for declarative memory, involving facts and knowledge.

  1. Emotional Regulation:

  • Adequate sleep helps regulate emotions in young children. A well-rested brain is better equipped to handle stress and manage emotions effectively.

  • Lack of sleep can lead to irritability, difficulty concentrating, and increased anxiety in children. Ensuring sufficient sleep can help foster emotional stability and resilience.

Recommended Sleep Duration for Different Ages

  • Newborns (0-3 months): 14-17 hours per 24hrs. Variety of naps

  • Infants (4-11 months): 12-15 hours per 24hrs. Around between 2-4 naps

  • Toddlers (1-2 years): 11-14 hours per 24hrs. Around one nap

  • Preschoolers (3-5 years): 10-13 hours per 24hrs. Usually, 0 naps.

These recommendations include naps and nighttime sleep, which are important for overall sleep health. It is important to know that these are averages, and if your baby is happy and content but sits outside these, then that is okay.

Creating a Sleep-Friendly Environment

  1. Consistent Bedtime Routine:

  • Establishing a consistent bedtime routine helps signal the child that it’s time to wind down and prepare for sleep. This routine can include reading a book, taking a warm bath, or listening to soothing music.

  1. Comfortable and Safe Sleep Setting:

  • Ensure the child's sleep environment is comfortable, quiet, and dark. A cool room temperature and a comfortable mattress can also contribute to better sleep quality.

  • Safe doesn’t just mean physically safe; it also means safety from their perspective. This might mean that they want to be in close proximity to you.

  1. Limiting Screen Time:

  • Screen exposure before bedtime can interfere with a child's ability to fall asleep. Limiting screen time and ensuring a technology-free bedroom can promote better sleep.

  1. Responsive Parenting:

  • Being responsive to a child's needs during the night, such as addressing hunger, discomfort, or fear, can help them feel secure and promote better sleep patterns.

Does my baby have a sleep disorder?

It can feel like your baby isn't getting enough sleep, but it might be normal for a biological infant to sleep. It is hard to work out if your baby has a sleep disorder at such a young age, but some red flags we can look out for are:

Does my baby sleep with their mouth open?

Is my baby snoring?

Does my baby have restless legs when they sleep?

Is my baby feeding well at night?

Had my baby got reflux?


These are just some red flags that can be easily identified with little ones. Frequent night waking is really common for the first few years of life. It is a mechanism for safety as it helps to protect against SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome), helps milk supply and comfort, and because they don’t have the capacity to self-soothe or regulate yet.  

Sleep is an indispensable part of a child’s brain development, affecting everything from neural growth to emotional regulation and memory consolidation. Parents and caregivers can support their children's developmental needs by prioritizing healthy sleep habits and creating a conducive sleep environment. And remember, just because you are up a lot at night doesn’t mean you are fully awake, but it does mean that you have to learn how to support your sleep while you support theirs.

What to know how I can help support your little ones sleep or help you with your sleep click on the link below and book a FREE 15 minute chat with me.


Outline of baby showing the nervous system and brain. Text reads Babies and their brains
Babies and their Brains

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