When most parents think of sleep deprivation in relation to a baby, it's in regard to moms losing sleep. It's fairly well known that, after a newborn comes into the world, there are lots of sleepless nights and schedule adjustments ahead. Considering whether baby is getting enough sleep, however, can also become a concern for moms who feel their baby is restless or not sleeping as many hours as they should throughout the day. For moms who are worried about their baby's sleep schedule, you may be wondering, "can sleep deprivation affect my baby's brain?"
According to Parenting Science, a few of the reasons parents become concerned with the amount of sleep baby get include issues that interfere with sleep (like GERD or acid reflex), waking up too often at night or during the day, snoring or breathing irregularities, or even if your baby is just continuously waking herself up each time you put her down. Although Dr. Alice Callahan told Science of Mom that sleep deprivation is a completely normal part of parenting, she also pointed out that chronic sleep deprivation is a reason for concern, considering babies need sleep for healthy development. If your baby is consistently deprived of sleep, there are a few significant effects that can occur as a result.
One way sleep deprivation can affect your baby relates to learning and the ability for the brain to mature, according to Callahan. She spoke of several studies that showed babies with longer and more efficient sleep at night had higher cognitive scores and better memory. For example, Dr. Rebecca Gómez and colleagues conducted a study at the University of Arizona where they played an artificial language recording to 15 month olds four hours before they came in. The babies that napped between the recording and test remembered and showed "a more abstract relation," while those who didn't sleep showed a memory effect.
Another way sleep deprivation can affect your baby's brain is one most parents have seen firsthand when their child misses nap time: mood. In an interview with GMA News Online, sleep expert Alicia Estiller said "sound sleep is associated with more positive daytime behavior, mood, and temperament, and better physical functioning." If your baby isn't getting enough sleep on a consistent basis, you may notice that they often seem agitated, frustrated, distracted, and fussy. Although all babies will show those temperaments from time to time, it's generally not an every-day issue unless there's an underlying cause, like sickness or not enough sleep.
When babies sleep, the brain also releases a growth hormone, somatotrophin, through the pituitary gland according to Baby Sleep Academy (BSA). The majority of the hormone is released while your baby is in the non-REM stage of sleep, and because of that, sleep deprivation can also stunt physical development in babies and down the line.
If your baby is experiencing consistent sleep deprivation, BSA noted that this could also affect your baby's production of leptin (a hormone that tells your brain when you don't need food) or cause more ghrelin (hormone that triggers hunger). So if you notice your baby, especially as she's getting older, is constantly hungry or not eating enough, try looking to her sleep schedule.
Overall, there are several ways sleep deprivation can affect a baby's brain, but it's important to remember that some sleep deprivation is going to be normal for both parents and babies. If it starts to become a consistent issue outside of normal sleep regression stages, consider talking with your pediatrician about it.