Baby Walking

Those first teetering steps are one of the most exciting milestones of early life. Learning to walk for the first time is no easy feat (or should I say “feet”?).

But it turns out that as babies figure out how to navigate the world on two legs, they have a secret weapon to help them meet the challenge: sleep.

Psychologists have long suspected that sleep is a powerful tool for learning and problem solving. Now, it appears that sleep could play an important role in the heavy-duty motor learning that babies have to do.

Recently, a team of psychologists ran a study of 28 infants who had only begun to walk within the last week. To learn about the babies’ motor problem solving, the researchers set up a task in which the children had to go through a shoulder-height tunnel to reach one of their caregivers.

What made this task especially hard was that typically, infants who have just learned to walk try to avoid going back to crawling whenever possible. But of course, the infants couldn’t solve the task by walking through the tunnel upright.

In the study, the children had a training session, then a break, then a testing session where they were scored on how well they completed the challenge. In between the training session and the testing session, half the infants were randomly selected to take naps and the other half stayed awake.

When the testing session came, it turned out that the babies who’d napped significantly improved their performance. They’d gotten better at doing the task just by “sleeping on it.” On the other hand, the babies who hadn’t napped didn’t show any progress.

The implication is that sleeping, something infants do a lot, could play an important role in motor problem solving, something else infants do a lot. As the study demonstrates, it may be that even a brief nap can facilitate motor learning. And those adventurous first step that baby takes may be thanks in no small part to time spent in dreamland.

Image: Flickr/Philippe Put