A squirming, unsettled baby and an exhausted parent who are both fighting through sleep time is a scenario every mum or dad has faced. Yet this witching hour could possibly become Einstein hour, as a 2015 study from the University of Sheffield has revealed that sleep helps babies develop their memory and retain new behaviours they have learnt.
"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," says Dr Jane Herbert from the University of Sheffield's Department of Psychology.
In the study, 216 healthy six- to 12-month-old infants were shown how to remove and manipulate a mitten from a hand puppet. They were given the opportunity to reproduce these actions after a four and 24 hour delay. Only the infants who had slept after the first activity remembered the target actions, while those who had not slept showed no evidence of remembering the new information and behaviour.
Lisa, a mum of a 10-month-old, wasn't surprised by the findings. She says that ever since introducing a little bit of learning into bedtime, her son is more settled and embraces sleep more. She has also noticed that her son is more engaged in these activities than during the day. "The bath, milk, bed routine would just leave him all squirmy in my arms, agitated and fighting sleep," Lisa says.
Lisa now alternates between quiet play, doing puzzles, reading stories and singing as part of bed time. "He is more attentive, more relaxed, and kicks his legs in happiness when I read a story I've read before, like he remembers what is about to happen and is all excited."
The study also proposes that flexible napping schedules that work with different daily schedules could ensure optimal learning conditions. A mum of three, Anita says that flexibility is essential in their home – and with a baby, a toddler and a six-year-old, naptime for her four-month-old is a precious learning time. "I put him on my lap and we sing songs," she says. "I know it sounds so simple but he is more content, is willing to have his milk, and easily settles for his nap."
When asked if she thinks her son is learning as well as settling down for sleep, Anita says, "We sing nursery rhymes together, and often it is the same nursery rhymes over again. I really think he is learning, or at least he is remembering the songs, because he is really happy, giggles and even attempts to sing along with his baby gurgles and noises."
Activities such as reading books before bed were always a good idea, but now can be a vital time for learning and memory development, as the study suggests that learning opportunities around nap times can be invaluable. Here are six ways to promote learning in sleepy babies:
1. Read books: They can be the same books over again, simple baby books or intricate picture books. Reading can be one of the best activities for parents and babies.
2. Play with flash cards: Associate words and pictures, and make up stories and funny rhymes. Flash cards can be a great learning tool.
3. Listen to music: Whether it's soft soothing lullabies, music in a second language, nursery rhymes or children's songs, a CD or curated playlist can be the perfect sleep time accompaniment.
4. Sing songs: Sing nursery rhymes or even Christmas carols – any song will do! Add hand actions and movement to further engage baby.
5. Play simple games or puzzles: Wooden puzzles, peek-a-boo, stacking rings … the options are endless for simple quiet play before bed.
6. Play 'Goodnight Moon': Follow the bedtime ritual of bunny in Margaret Wise Brown's classic book, naming the objects in baby's bedroom, or even around the house.