Sleep is a complex and glorious thing. You feel so much better if you get a good night's sleep, but it's more than just a mere recharge. For a baby, the tasks sleep accomplishes are even more profound than rest but you're probably wondering, what's happening in my baby's body while they're sleeping?
I remember I would sit and stare at my babies for what seemed like hours as they slept. At first, it was out of sheer paranoia — is he still breathing? Why did he jerk like that? Or, it was out of just absolute awe — Holy cow, I made that. To be honest, I still feel this way and I still sometimes watch them sleep. They're so cute when they sleep. They're not fighting or yelling — it's adorable.
I used to wonder what my babies were dreaming about. My assumption was that they were dreaming of boobs and other boob-related paraphernalia, but I could see behind their eyelids, the tiny twitches that point to rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and dreaming. Apparently, though, researcher David Foulkes, author of Children's Dreaming and the Development of Consciousness, wrote that babies may be dreamless for the first few months of life. However, since this is only one theory, and I didn't like the answer, I did what any good biased researcher does, and found an alternative theory. This far newer study published in Current Problems in Pediatric and Adolescent Healthcare posited that REM is so complex that non-rapid eye movement (NREM) dreaming and REM sleep are both critical and real in infants, and that they may be linked to childhood obesity later in life.
As for those twitches your baby does while they sleep? There are a few different types, and yes, they do serve a purpose. Sometimes it's what referred to as a myoclonic jerk, which is a benign jerking of the muscles that happens when some babies sleep, Mayo Clinic noted. Other, more subtle movements, are shown to provide crucial sensory input in infants which leads to neuromuscular and sensory development, according to Frontiers in Neurology. Another study, published in The Journal of Brain Research, used MRI images of sleeping babies, and found that when a baby twitches in their REM sleep cycle, their sensorimotor cortex lights up. The sensorimotor cortex is most-associated with Piaget's work on the sensorimotor stage of cognitive development, which is when a baby learns the language of his own body and the surrounding environment, noted SUNY Courtland.
According to the article in Frontiers in Neurology, it is suggested that babies also learn language in their sleep. Researchers noted that the ability for infants to learn while sleeping is possibly a purely infant phenomena and is indicative of the plasticity of the human brain in development. Should I have played Elvish to my children while they slept? Do you think they could've guided me to Middle Earth by now? I'll never know.
When you wonder what's happening to your baby's body while they sleep, you may be thinking about it because your baby is having a sleep issue. Rest assured, your baby's amazing body is also hard at work on normal sleep processes, like digesting food, and developing the digestive tract's acids and juices, according to Jornal de Pediatria. This can be a particularly fraught process, I can assure you, as the mother of a child who suffered from severe nocturnal reflux. My son often looked like he was being tortured, and it tortured me. Thankfully, there are strategies to help combat it.
Sleep is also the perfect time for baby's body to go into growth mode. According to a study conducted by Emory University, the more babies sleep, including naps, the more their limbs grow. As a woman who is clocking in at 6 feet tall, I can vividly recall waking up at night in tears from all the growing I did. Had my mother not constantly reminded me how terrible a sleeper I was as a child, I would've assumed all I did was sleep.
Babies are wonderfully composed to be able to grow, learn, develop, and rest while asleep. You never do as much in your sleep again in your lives, except for maybe puberty, but don't talk about that right now. For right now, you're too busy staring at your baby in wonder (and possible paranoia). Don't worry, I did it, too.