What do babies dream of?

A Kiwi researcher, whose pioneering study aims to reveal the intriguing role of sleep in infant learning and memory, is calling on parents to help her find out.

Despite the fact babies spend more than half of their time asleep, researchers have only recently begun to discover that even at a young age "sleeping on it" after a learning experience helps infants to retain their memories over time.

In a three-year project kicking off this month, Waikato University developmental psychologist Dr Sabine 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.


As part of the study, supported by a $300,000 Marsden Fund grant, Seehagen 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," she said.

"For example, we play imitation games or I show pictures of faces with different emotional expressions."

First, she and her colleagues will determine the effect of timing of sleep. Does being well-rested or tired affect the ability of 6-month-olds to recognise emotional faces?

Next, the researchers will aim to discover if taking a nap versus staying awake after learning makes it easier for 6- to 18-month-olds to selectively consolidate memories for emotional faces (sleeping to remember) or lessen the effects associated with recalling emotional episodes (sleeping to forget).

Dr Sabine Seehagen from the University of Waikato (right) works with a baby and mum as part of her brain research. Photo / Ann Huston
Dr Sabine Seehagen from the University of Waikato (right) works with a baby and mum as part of her brain research. Photo / Ann Huston

Researchers predict that previous sleep prepares the infant brain to accurately encode emotional stimuli.

They also predict that post-learning sleep promotes selective retention of emotional information and reduces the emotional "tone"' associated with recalling an emotional event.

Knowing more about how sleep shapes emotional memory and thus regulates which experiences are likely to stick with an infant and in which form, will contribute to a deeper understanding of adaptive and maladaptive development.

Since starting research on babies' development at the university, Seehagen said young families in Waikato had been generous with their time in assisting her work.

"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 am looking for more families who might be interested in taking part."

Seehagen mainly works with babies 6 to 18 month old, 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.

Families are invited to register their interest in taking part here or to contact Seehagen at sabine.seehagen@waikato.ac.nz