As any parent will tell you, a new-born baby seems to do very little more than eat, fill nappies and sleep in the first few weeks of its life.
The trick has always been to try and balance those all-consuming needs and fit them into some sort of routine or, at least, a regular pattern that allows all the parties involved to function in their own right while servicing the needs of their little miracle.
The next stage is no less demanding and requires the parents to learn to recognise the four main edicts within an endless cycle of tyrannical demands to ‘feed me’, ‘change me’, ‘amuse me’ or ‘tired now, get me to sleep’.
The last of these has always been the most problematic, curious young minds immersing themselves in a beguiling new world of fresh sounds, sights and sensations do not surrender consciousness willingly.
Speaking as a father who has rocked, sung, cradled, cuddled, stroked, patted, perambulated and driven for many an hour in an attempt to encourage my recalcitrant offspring into the Land of Nod, I can attest to nap time as a welcome release for both child and parent.
Of course it has long been known that it is during slumber that much of the body’s maturing process and growth takes place, but the results of new research at the University of Sheffield indicate that the function of sleep is even more important to the baby than mere physical development.
In controlled testing over 200 healthy babies of between six months and a year old were shown how to remove and replace the gloves on a puppet, not a particularly difficult task but one which required the learning of a new skill and an extended level of dexterity.
The test subjects were then sorted into comparable age groups and divided between those infants who ‘napped’ for a minimum of 30 minutes within four hours of the learning experience and those who did not sleep until more than four hours had passed.
The results were startling.
Those infants who had slept had no trouble in repeating the task they had performed and demonstrating their newly acquired skills.
The groups who had not slept within four hours appeared to retain nothing of the experience at all.
Although learning and memory have been linked to sleep before (ask any student who has recorded revision materials to play to themselves during their unconscious hours) this is the first time that such a tangible comparison of a combination of physical and mental learning has been made.
Even so, the research team says that more work and analysis is required before they can begin to understand the link between learning, memory and the subconscious.
What they do suggest as a key finding, however, is that the best time to teach a child is just before a nap.
As long as you can get their heads down for long enough.
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