"These findings are particularly interesting to both parents and educationalists because they suggest that the optimal time for infants to learn new information is just before they have a sleep," says Dr. Herbert.
The researchers, including Dr. Jane Herbert of the University of Sheffield in the UK and investigators from Ruhr University Bochum in Germany, publish their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The association between sleep and the brain among adults is well studied. Last September, Medical News Today reported on a study claiming lack of sleep in adults may reduce brain volume, affecting the ability to retain new information, while another study found shortness of sleep may speed up brain aging.
But according to Dr. Herbert and colleagues, very little was known about how sleep aids a child's brain development, even though the majority of their time is spent sleeping.
As such, the team set out to assess how sleep affected the learning and memory skills of 216 healthy infants aged 6 and 12 months.
The best learning time for infants is just before a nap
For their study, the researchers made two visits to each infants' home - either straight after they had slept or just before they were expected to fall asleep.
On the first visit, the researchers conducted a learning task, which involved showing the infants how to remove and play with a mitten that had been placed on a hand puppet.
On the second visit - either 4 or 24 hours later - the researchers monitored how the infants reacted to seeing the mitten-wearing hand puppet again. Specifically, they wanted to see whether the infants would try to remove and play with the mitten, indicating they had processed and remembered these actions from the learning task.
The researchers found that infants who had at least a 30-minute nap within 4 hours of the learning task remembered to remove and play with the hand puppet's mitten on the second visit. Infants of the same age who did not nap after the learning task, however, were not able to perform these actions, suggesting they did not remember the learning task.
After 24 hours, infants who had napped after the learning task continued to show much better memory recall than those who had not napped.
Infants who napped for less than 30 minutes after the learning task did not display better memory recall, indicating that less than 30 minutes sleep is not enough time for infants' brains to consolidate new information.
Commenting on the results, Dr. Herbert says:
"These findings are particularly interesting to both parents and educationalists because they suggest that the optimal time for infants to learn new information is just before they have a sleep.
Until now, people have presumed that the best time for infants to learn is when they are wide awake, rather than when they are starting to feel tired, but our results show that activities occurring just before infants have a nap can be particularly valuable and well-remembered."
She adds that engaging in educational activities with children just before bedtime, such as reading a story, could significantly help their learning and memory development.
Next, the team plans to investigate whether sleep increases the amount of new information an infant can retain and whether it boosts memory quality.
Last month, MNT reported on a study suggesting shortness of sleep alongside sleep-related breathing problems may increase the risk of a child becoming obese by the age of 15 years.