Tag Archives: infant

Surprisingly few infants contracted the COVID-19 coronavirus

The coronavirus outbreak seems to be largely avoiding infants, according to a new study.

Image credits U.S. Army / Sgt. 1st Class Raymond Moore.

New research looking into the cases of infants admitted to Chinese hospitals with the coronavirus (COVID-19) reports that, between December 8 and February 6, only nine such cases were recorded. As of February 14th, over 63,000 cases of coronavirus infections were recorded in China, making the number of infant cases surprisingly small in comparison. As of last week, the virus tallied over 45,000 infections worldwide and led to the deaths of over 1,000 people.

Must be this old to ride

The infants in this study were 1 to 11 months old and were admitted to the hospital with fever, coughs, or other mild respiratory symptoms, the team explains. None of them suffered any subsequent complications from the virus. Given the disproportionately low number of infant infections recorded, the authors propose that they may be less susceptible to the virus or have a lower risk of being exposed. Alternatively, it could be the case that infants contract the virus just as easily as everyone else but only develop a mild case and don’t require medical supervision.

All of the infants identified had at least one infected family member and became sick after their relatives fell ill. However, another study showed that infected mothers do not pass the virus to their children before or during birth through cesarean section. Samples of amniotic fluid from these mothers, as well as throat swabs from the newborns, showed no sign of COVID-19. Umbilical cord blood and breast milk were also found to be free of the virus. However, the authors of the second study caution that all the participants were already in their third semester, so it remains possible that the virus can spread to a fetus in the earlier stages of the pregnancy. Similarly, they all gave birth by c-section, so it is unknown whether vaginal delivery also insulates the newborn from the virus.

SARS and MERS, two coronaviruses related to the current outbreak of COVID-19, also seemed to ‘avoid’ infants. They didn’t pass to the newborns during birth and few cases of infant infections were recorded in general.

The paper “Novel Coronavirus Infection in Hospitalized Infants Under 1 Year of Age in China” has been published in the journal JAMA.

Ancient baby feeder.

Tiny, ancient, animal-shaped pots were likely the first baby bottles

A team led by researchers from the University of Bristol reports on the earliest evidence of babies being fed animal milk — and of the ancient equivalent of modern-day baby bottles.

Late Bronze Age feeding vessels from Vösendorf, Austria.
Image credits Enver-Hirsch / Wien Museum.

Chemical analyses, as well as the context these vessels were discovered in, strongly suggest that they were used as baby feeders. The vessels were made from clay and first appeared in Europe around the Neolithic (late stone age, around 5,000 BC). Throughout the Bronze and Iron Ages, these vessels become increasingly more commonplace, the team explains.

Baby munchies

“These very small, evocative, vessels give us valuable information on how and what babies were fed thousands of years ago, providing a real connection to mothers and infants in the past,” says lead author Dr. Julie Dunne from the University of Bristol’s School of Chemistry.

The vessels are quite small — usually small enough that a baby could comfortably grip and hold them. They also have a spout through which liquid can be suckled and, in some of the more eye-catching variants, are shaped like animals or resembling animals. Although this does suggest that they were used as an equivalent of today’s baby bottles, we don’t have any direct evidence of their function. For example, they could very well have been made for the sick or infirm to use.

In order to find out what kind of foods these vessels were used to serve, the team analyzed three examples found in child graves in Bavaria. These vessels were small (about 5-10 cm across) with an extremely narrow spout. Food residues within the vessels showed that they contained ruminant milk (from domesticated cattle, sheep, or goats).

Ancient baby feeder.
Selection of Late Bronze Age feeding vessels from Vienna, Oberleis, Vösendorf, and Franzhausen-Kokoron (from left to right), dated to around 1200– 800 BC.
Image credits Katharina Rebay-Salisbury.

The presence of these specialized vessels in child graves, along with the presence of milk residue inside them, strongly suggests that these were used to feed animal milk to babies — in the place of human milk and/or during weaning onto supplementary foods.

The study represents our closest proven link between these vessels and child feeding. They’re also the most direct evidence of weaning practices we have to date — previously, these were inferred from isotopic analysis of infant skeletons, but that only gave us some bits of the puzzle. As such, the study fleshes out our understanding of breastfeeding and weaning practices, as well as infant and maternal health practices in prehistory.

She continued: “Similar vessels, although rare, do appear in other prehistoric cultures (such as Rome and ancient Greece) across the world,” Dunne explains. “Ideally, we’d like to carry out a larger geographic study and investigate whether they served the same purpose.”

The paper “Milk of ruminants in ceramic baby bottles from prehistoric child graves” has been published in the journal Nature.

Credit: Ami et al.

3D scans reveal how an infant’s head changes shape during birth

Credit: Ami et al.

Credit: Ami et al.

Doctors have been aware for a long time that infants’ heads change shape during birth. However, the details of fetal head molding remained unclear — until now. Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), scientists have captured 3D images of babies’ skulls as they move through the birth canal just moments before delivery.

Olivier Ami of Auvergne University in Clermont Ferrand, France, and colleagues performed MRI scans on the skulls and brains of seven infants before and during the second stage of labor — this is when the baby leaves the uterus and enters the birth canal.

The scans show that the infant skull and brain have a remarkable ability to mold as they experience intense pressure through the birth canal.

After birth, five of the newborns’ skull and brain shapes returned to their pre-birth state, but the changes persisted in two of the infants. Two of the three infants with the greatest degree of fetal head molding had to be delivered by an emergency C-section; the third was delivered vaginally with no out of the ordinary effort.

The unprecedented 3D images show that infants experience more skull stress during birth than doctors believed. This may explain why some newborns who are delivered vaginally may experience retinal bleeding and other temporary damage to the head.

“During vaginal delivery, the fetal brain shape undergoes deformation to varying degrees depending on the degree of overlap of the skull bones. Fetal skull molding is no more visible in most newborns after birth. Some skulls accept the deformation (compliance) and allow an easy delivery, while others do not deform easily (non-compliance),” Ami said in a statement.

The findings were reported in the journal PLoS ONE

Infants as young as six months old can sense mother’s angry tone

Credit: Pixabay.

The same words can mean very different things depending on intonation or rhythm. According to a new study, the same brain networks that enable human adults to decipher the emotional content of vocalizations is at play in infants as young as six months old.

Parents are well aware that their children are able to recognize if they’re happy or angry well before they can learn to speak. In adults, emotional content is processed in the frontal and temporal lobes, but it was never clear if such was the case in infants, too. Previous work that relied on MRI machines to scan the brains of infants proved to be challenging because of the highly disturbing noise.

Researchers at the University of Manchester, UK, solved this problem by employing a non-invasive brain imaging method called functional near-infrared spectroscopy. This brain imaging technique involves measuring blood flow to cortical areas.

In an experiment, infants listened to recorded non-speech vocalizations while sitting in their mothers’ laps. The vocalizations were either angry, happy, or neutral in their emotional content.

The researchers also studied the same mother-infant pairs during normal activities such as floor play, carefully quantifying the mother’s interactions with her child. Specifically, the researchers were interested in the degree to which the mother sought to control her infant’s behavior and how sensitive the infant’s behavior was to the mother’s commands.

Both angry and happy vocalizations were found to activate the same fronto-cortical network as in adults. Angry vocalizations elicited the highest level of activation in this brain region, and increased with the mother’s degree of control. This suggests that caregiving can heighten an infant’s sensitivity to angry vocalizations as well as the stress they produce.

“Brain science shows that babies’ brains are sensitive to different emotional tones they hear in voices. Such tones can cause different activation patterns in the infant’s brain areas which are also known to be involved in processing voices in adults and older children. These patterns also reveal that the early care experienced by babies can influence brain responses so that the more intrusive and demanding their mother, the stronger the brain response of these 6-month-olds is to hearing angry voices,” said Chen Zhao, lead author of the new study published in the journal PLOS ONE. 


What makes things cute?

What exactly is it that makes us go “d’awww” — and why?


Image credits Harald Lepisk.

A few days ago, as I was writing this post (it’s about puppies, you’ll love it), a few questions began to quicken somewhere in my brain. Why do we find certain things cute? Why can my brain perceive such a wide array of things and beings as ‘cute’? And why does it give me that warm, mushy feeling inside? Let’s find out, starting with:

The Why

Our best guess around the issue so far is that cuteness has a biological and evolutionary basis. That we find some things to be ‘cute’ because that ability gave us an evolutionary advantage. This theory was put forward around 1950 by Austrian zoologist, and one of the founders of ethology, Konrad Lorenz.

Lorenz’s view was that certain traits of an infant’s face trigger a nurturing instinct in adults — we perceive this as a feeling of ‘cuteness’. It nudged parents into being more involved in caring and providing for their children, making it more likely that they would grow healthily and reach adulthood. So, over time, those who could perceive the cuteness of their babies gained an evolutionary advantage over those who couldn’t. Team Cute was simply better at keeping their babies alive — so, in time, the genes that encoded this instinct and associated behavior gained the upper hand over other variants.

In other words, there are no cute things, only things you perceive as being cute so you’ll feed them.

This is what our current understanding of cuteness boils down to. Our brains have evolved to take certain elements associated with our younglings as cues for a nurturing instinct. We feel the push of that instinct in our desire to take a baby and pinch its cheeks. It makes us want to keep it warm and well fed. Finally, it keeps us from throwing the baby/ourselves to the bears after two straight weeks of being woken up in the middle of the night (this is very useful).

It also seems that the evolutionary advantage we talked about earlier did a lot to tilt the playing field. Humanity today seems to have a pretty homogenous view of what constitutes ‘cute’, suggesting that the cute-instinct imposed itself throughout all human populations. Even infants themselves seem to be more drawn to other cute infant faces compared to un-cute ones, a sign that recognition of cute is so important to the human race it got hard-wired into our brains.

Why, then, are so many other things cute?


Image via life.cookingpanda.com

Does this sea slug look cute to you? Let’s be honest — of course it does. But is that sea slug your kid?

I salute any sea slug who reads ZME Science, but I’ll wager that most of you answered with a resounding ‘no!’ to that last one. Which, given what we’ve seen so far, doesn’t really fit in. If babies are cute so parents miss how stressful they can be, why does that slug make me squeal in delight?

Well, it all cycles back to those cues our brains use for gauging cuteness. They’re actually pretty general elements, like different body shapes and ratios. This means that your brain will register many things as ‘cute’. One of the best people you can go to to learn about cuteness — and insight on how to abuse it — are designers, cartoonists, and other types of visual artists.

“Childlike characteristics make a baby sweet and bring us to build rapport. We find it dinky. That even works when we see things reminding us of a baby or just parts of it,” wrote Sascha Preuss in an Envato Tuts+ design course focusing on designing cute characters.

“That means these characteristics can be consciously transfused and applied, for example in the field of designing things and of course especially when it comes to character design.”

Some of the things the course points to as conducive to cuteness are:

  • A high head-to-body size ratio. For a baby, that’s roughly 1:4, while for adults it’s 1:8. “Cute characters need big and round heads,” it adds, and exaggerated features can help increase this effect.
  • The eyes and ears are placed lower in the skull, creating a large forehead. They’re spaced more widely apart than in an adult and are relatively big in proportion to the rest of the face. We tend to find things with eyes showing forward as cuter.
  • A soft, small, not-fully-developed nose.
  • Smaller mouths are cuter, as we subconsciously register bigger ones as being threatening or dangerous. It should also be closer to the eyes than in an adult face. “Some cute Japanese characters don’t have a mouth at all,” Preuss adds.
  • A generally-round and soft body. Limbs shouldn’t be too long, and the legs especially should be “short and plump”. Fingers, likewise, should be short and stout. Wobbling also helps. All of this feeds into a look of relaxed helplessness that just makes us want to pinch a (round) cheek.

There are more factors playing into how cute we perceive something to be, but these are the few central ones. We’ve evolved to respond to such cues because that’s how our babies look — but that sea slug shares a lot of these characteristics. So why aren’t our brains more disciplined? We don’t really know.

On a personal note, I’ve come to see that evolution very often makes ‘economic’ sense, for lack of a better word. This may explain why we have such a wide range of cute. Statistical hypothesis testing considers two types of errors: type I’s, and type II’s. A type I error is seeing something that’s not there. Type II is failing to see something that actually is there.

When your baby is involved, a type II error is, potentially, far more costly than a type I. It’s really, really bad for you and your genes if you fail to notice that your baby is cute and aren’t incentivized to care for it. Comparatively, finding a puppy cute isn’t very costly — at worst, you’ll have to contend with its mom, but you already passed on your genes, so it’s fine even if you get mauled.

In other words, people who would register many things as cute had a better chance of passing on their genes than people who would register too few, or none. So, finding things cute — even finding too many things cute — became a selective advantage.

What does it do to me?

MRI orbitofrontal cortex.

The orbitofrontal cortex, involved in processing pleasure and emotion.
Image credits Paul Wicks.

Cuteness seems to elicit a very powerful effect on the brain. We’ve talked about the physical cues that construct it, however, cuteness is not limited to visual stimuli. One study found that the other senses, such as “positive sounds and smells”, also help reinforce feelings of cuteness. Furthermore, something cute draws our attention like a magnet, ignites a flurry of activity in our brain, and alters our behavior — making us more compassionate.

A strong effect, right? Well, it makes sense — our infants, unlike those of other species, are completely dependent on adults. One of the jobs cuteness performs, then, is to make sure that the baby is put on the top of our brain’s priority list 24/7. This strong reaction is there by design, to make infants difficult to ignore.

Cuteness activates brain networks involved in processing emotion and pleasure and makes us more empathetic. That’s why looking at cute pictures of cats online makes us feel so good. It’s almost ridiculously effective at altering behavior: research has shown that people prefer to look at cute baby faces over attractive adult faces; we’re more likely to adopt or gift toys to cute babies; we’re willing to expend effort just to look at cute babies. All of this, regardless of gender, even if we’re not parents ourselves.

It also triggers more long-lasting effects in the brain. The first thing our pound of gray matter does upon seeing something cute is to activate the orbitofrontal cortex — involved in emotion and pleasure processing. This activation, however, also prompts secondary processes throughout other brain networks. This pattern of activity has been associated with caregiving, bonding, and nurturing behavior.

Seeing something cute, in other words, starts priming your brain for parenthood.

Sudden infant death syndrome linked to a rare genetic mutation

A group of researchers discovered a new, important genetic mutation, associated with the breathing muscles, that is implicated in cot deaths. They believe future research will find a way to prevent such tragedies.

Via Pixabay/RitaE

“Previously the whole focus of trying to understand it was either the heart or the brain cells controlling breathing,” said Professor Michael Hanna of the MRC Centre for Neuromuscular Diseases at University College London, one of the authors of the new paper published in The Lancet.

Professor Hanna said that researchers now want to investigate all the other genes associated with the breathing muscles that may be implicated in cot deaths and see what role they are playing.

The newly discovered genetic mutation causes a dysfunction in the management of low oxygen levels in the infant’s blood, researchers said.  It alters the shape of a “sodium pump” that maintains an electric current to stimulate muscle contraction.

“I think the evidence is pretty compelling that some cases of SIDS are caused by sodium channel mutations,” said Prof. Hanna.
“There must be a vulnerability, and what we’re saying is that in some cases, the sodium channel is rendering them vulnerable,” he explained.

Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), is also known as crib death because the seemingly healthy infants often die in their cribs during sleep. The affected babies are less than a year old. These tragic events are rare, about 300 such unexpected deaths happening in the UK every year and 2,400 in the US.

Doctors recommend to lay the babies on their back and not their front, not to smoke near them and not to share a bed with them. Time has proven that these measures reduce the risks of cot deaths, but scientists have never understood why such horrible events happened. Previous research has described one other genetic mutation in a heart gene which may play a part in SIDS.

In this new paper, researchers studied the cases of 278 children who died unexpectedly and were diagnosed with SIDS – 84 from the UK and 194 from the US. After sequencing their genome, scientists compared them with the ones of adults with no cardiovascular, neurological or respiratory diseases.

Next, researchers looked at the prevalence of the SCN4A gene that codes for a cell surface receptor found on top of breathing muscular cells. At birth, the expression of this surface receptor is low, gradually increasing during the first two years of life.

Scientists observed that the rare mutation was found in four of the children previously diagnosed with SIDS, and in none of the adults. Even though the figure may not seem relevant to you, researchers say it is highly significant because it is normally found in fewer than five people in every 100,000. The research team believes that this mutation could affect children’s breathing muscles, making them weaker. Infants are most vulnerable when sleeping in the wrong position or tangled in the bedclothes.

“In the population we studied, the evidence is strong that it is at the very least a risk factor in those cases that had it [the genetic mutation],” said Hanna. “It certainly doesn’t explain the majority of Sids,” he concluded.

Luckily, in the future, researchers will be able to find all the genes implicated in triggering SIDS and develop a method to fight this dreadful syndrome.

Baby hand.

Fracking linked to low-weight, less healthy babies

Infants born close to fracking wells are 25% more likely to have low birth weights, according to a new study, raising concerns about its long-term health implications.

Baby hand.

Image via Pixabay.

The merits of fracking — a process which relies on hydraulic fracturing to reach deposits of natural gas trapped in deep-lying rocks, generally shales — is nothing if not a hotly debated topic. Europe has, by-and-large, said no to fracking. It’s big business in the US, however, with some hailing it as an “energy revolution”. A term you could use, I reckon, if you’d consider slapping a band-aid on a broken leg instead of a cast as ‘revolutionary’ treatment.

Regardless of how fracking fits in the contexts of the global economy and climate change efforts, new evidence suggests that it also comes with unforeseen health implications. A new study, led by health economist Janet Currie at Princeton University, found that infants born in close proximity to a fracking well are more likely to have lower birth weights and score lower on a standard index of infant health.

Low birth weight is associated with a slew of health concerns, which can afflict an infant with life-long complications.

Fracked from birth

Fracking has enjoyed an extraordinary rise in the U.S. over the past 15 years. Concerns over its effects on public health, however, aren’t new. Previous research has linked living near oil and gas developments to a wide range of complications, from a higher incidence of cardiovascular disease, higher rates of asthma, migraines, cancer and neurological disorders, all the way to lower birth-weights of infants. These findings were often dismissed due to the low sample sizes they drew on, or the fact that they couldn’t prove the health effects got worse closer to drilling sites, as would be expected if fracking was to blame.

Some states, like Maryland and New York, have nevertheless opted for a “better safe than sorry” approach, banning fracking altogether. Other states, by contrast, have chosen to embrace it. Either way, like so many topics over the last few years, fracking stands poised to divide the country, at least until its risks and rewards are fully understood.

Heavy fracking.

“In areas where shale-drilling/hydraulic fracturing is heavy, a dense web of roads, pipelines and well pads turn continuous forests and grasslands into fragmented islands.”
Image and caption credits to Simon Fraser University / Flickr.

To that end, the team at Princeton looked at the birth certificates of 1.1 million infants born in Pennsylvania between 2004 and 2013. This is one of the most intensely fracked states, and most of its over 10,000 wells were drilled during the period covered by the study. These certificates include addresses and vital statistics for each infant, such as birth weights, total months of gestation, birth defects, and other abnormal conditions. The team took this data and spread it (via address) on maps showing where wells were dug throughout the state. Finally, they plotted circles around each drilling site with radiuses of 1, 2, and 3 kilometers (0.62, 1.24, 1.86 miles).

The team reports that infants born within the tightest circle (1 km / 0.62-mile radius) around any well were 25% more likely to have low birth weights (under 2500 grams, or 5.5 pounds) compared to infants born outside any of the circles. They also scored significantly lower on a standard index of infant health. Infants born in the outer circles — between 1 and 3 kilometers from a well — showed lower average birth weights and scored lower on the health index than those outside the circles, but they were overall in better shape than the infants born in the tightest radius.

To make sure they weren’t picking up on other effects that could lead to poor infant health and health outcomes — for example race and socioeconomic background — the team factored out babies born in areas such as Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, which have higher rates of infants births with low weight. Further, they drew on a sample of 594 infants born inside the influence range of a well and their unexposed siblings (families who either lived somewhere else and then moved near the well, or who had a child before the well was drilled). Although the sample base was small, such comparisons showed that exposed infants were smaller and less healthy at birth than their unexposed brothers and sisters in the same families.

Run for the hills — or 2 miles away

One piece of good news, the authors say, is that these detrimental effects don’t extend far beyond the fracking sites. The team didn’t find any evidence of weight or health effects past 3 kilometers / 1.86 miles.

Hydraulic Fracturing Marcellus Shale.

Hydraulic fracturing operation at a Marcellus Shale well.
Image credits US Geological Survey.

However, the findings are far from painting a complete picture. The team still doesn’t know what aspect of fracking causes the observed effects. Currie, who specializes in the interplay between air pollution and health, says it likely comes down to airborne chemicals or the increased truck traffic and industrialization associated with fracking. Water pollution is an unlikely culprit, she believes, as many people in the study got their water from municipal sources, which aren’t close to fracking sites.

Oil and gas companies are having none of it, however. In an email to The Verge, Pittsburgh’s Marcellus Shale Coalition spokesperson Erica Clayton Wright said that the study falls far from definitively proving anything. Her main criticism is that it doesn’t do anything to address “crucial issues linked to low birth weights like smoking as well as alcohol and drug use” and that “given these deep methodological flaws, it’s dangerously misleading and inflammatory to suggest that natural gas development has done anything but improve public health” (it’s not). Then again, it’s not a very surprising claim coming from a company that’s trying to sell natural gas produced via hydraulic fracking. Neither is opposing tighter environmental regulation in regards to drilling nor backing a “citizen” initiative to take atomic energy (a direct competitor) off the market. All going towards the common public good, for sure.

I’d ask why people living within a 1-kilometer radius of a well smoke and drink more than people living 2 kilometers away. And why do both puff and chug more than those living between 2 and 3 kilometers away? It’s a striking coincidence. I’d probably be left unanswered.

Mrs. Wright is right on one point, however — there isn’t any smoking gun here, no God-given burning script in the sky linking fracking to poor infant health. Then again, gravity is just a theory as well. Nobody has ever ‘seen’ a chunk of gravity — we know it exists because we’ve gathered enough evidence (inconclusive on its own, very convincing in its sheer bulk) that gravity exists.

The present study isn’t alone. Others before it have reached similar results, even some beyond those found by Currie’s team, including evidence linking fracking activity to preterm births. How much ‘inconclusive’, ‘misleading’ and ‘inflammatory’ evidence must one gather for it to become ‘conclusive’? That’s a question each and every one living next to a well will have to grapple with for themselves.

On a final note, Currie adds that infants essentially acted as the “canaries” near the fracking mines, but they’re probably not the only victims. If they are affected, then the elderly and other vulnerable people living near wells are likely also at risk.

“We really should move beyond the discussion of whether there is a health effect or not to figuring out how we can help people who live close to fracking,” she concludes.

The paper “Unconventional Natural Gas Development and Birth Outcomes in Pennsylvania, USA” has been published in the journal Epidemiology.


How infants start relating to other people past age 4. Critical brain fiber matures around that age


Credit: Pixabay

At about age four, a lot of things start happening or changing for an infant. Some of the first memories we can remember happen around this time but perhaps the biggest jump in development has to do with understanding other people. You see, from age four onward infants no longer see the world as their oyster and realize other people can have drastically different point of views. They begin to understand that the information they have might not be shared by the person next to them and vice-versa.

Now, German researchers think they know what’s the biological mechanism that triggers this jump of out-of-mind consciousness: a critical fiber connection that consolidates as the brain matures at age 4.

Generally speaking, the ability to attribute mental states to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, intentions, and perspectives that are different from one’s own is called the Theory of Mind.

Children aged 4 or less seem to be devoid of this ability and, quite frankly, they’re some of the most egocentric beings. If they want a toy or something to eat, they just scream as hard as they can and give nothing in return but silence, that’s if the parents are fortunate enough. But you can’t blame them, really. They simply don’t have the mental machinery yet to ‘mind read’ other people.

For instance, when researchers showed a 3-year-old a chocolate box that contained pencils instead of chocolates and asked him what another child should expect to find in the box, the reply was ‘pencils’. A year later, around age four, the same child understood that another person must have hoped for chocolates because that’s what the box suggests.

Maturation of fibers in the arcuate fascicle (green) establishes a connection between two critical brain region enabling the 'theory of mind'. Credit: MPI CBS

Maturation of fibers in the arcuate fascicle (green) establishes a connection between two critical brain region enabling the ‘theory of mind’. Credit: MPI CBS

German researchers from Leiden University now think they know what’s behind this magic transformation. Their research suggests that brain fibers start maturing in a structure called the arcuate fascicle between the ages three and four years. These fibers establish a connection between two critical brain regions: one at the back of the temporal lobe that supports ‘adult thinking’ about others and their thoughts, and another region nested in the frontal lobe that’s involved in keeping things at different levels of abstraction. This connection is what helps us understand what the real world is and what the thoughts of other people might be.

This new connection in the brain supports the ‘theory of mind’ regardless of other cognitive abilities like intelligence, language or impulse control, as reported in Nature Communications.


Naps are key to infant learning and memory consolidation

People spend more of their time asleep as babies than at any other point in their lives, but even if this has been common knowledge for some time we’re only beginning to understand what role sleep plays during this key stage. University of Sheffield researchers claim that sleeping is key to learning and forming new memories for infants as old as 12 months. Babies who didn’t nap were far less able to repeat what they had been taught only 24 hours earlier. The findings aren’t only important for parents looking for advice to manage their babies, though. The researchers draw a parallel between life’s dawn and twilight years, suggesting that more sleep is important for memory consolidation for the elderly and helps keep neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s at bay. Is napping good or bad? Read on.

Sleeping through our baby years

Trials were performed with 216 babies six to twelve months old. The infants were taught three new tasks involving playing with hand puppets, then divided into two equal groups. Half the babies took a nap within four hours of learning, while the rest either had no sleep or napped for fewer than 30 minutes. Remarkably, those who took a nap could repeat one-and-a-half tasks on average the following day, in stark contrast to a big zero for the babies who stayed wide awake for the whole afternoon.

“Those who sleep after learning learn well, those not sleeping don’t learn at all,” said Dr Jane Herbert, from the department of psychology at the University of Sheffield.

Previously, it was assumed that staying wide awake is best for learning, yet the findings contradict this. Instead, it seems like learning new things just before a nap is best for infant memory consolidation, according to the paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

[RELATED] Strikingly similar ape and human infant gestures hint to evolution of language

Dr Herbert added: “Parents get loads of advice, some saying fixed sleep, some flexible, these findings suggest some flexibility would be useful, but they don’t say what parents should do.”

Prof Derk-Jan Dijk, a sleep scientists at the University of Surrey, said: “It may be that sleep is much more important at some ages than others, but that remains to be firmly established.”

In other words, the findings show that sleeping after training renders positive results. Being sleepy during training does not necessarily, though.