What’s Happening in the Brain While We Sleep?

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Unraveling the mystery behind why we sleep

Let me preface this by saying this — sleep science is still trying to figure out what exactly is going on. Sleep is by far one of the most mysterious things our bodies do and for decades researchers have been trying to get to the bottom of it. However, there are a few (fairly) sure things when it comes to sleep and what your brain is doing. I cannot tell you enough – sleep is vitally important for brain growth and development. This is for babies, kids, and yes, even us adults! Although our bodies may be resting, the brain is working overtime to get a lot of things done:

Sleep helps the brain organize: During the day, anything new that is learned gets put into a temporary storage space in the brain called the hippocampus. Think of this like a USB key. At night, your brain takes this information from the hippocampus and puts it in permanent memory storage — the cortex. Your cortex is your cloud storage, and there’s no limit! That’s why sleeping well before a test is key to remembering the information that will be covered. Studies have also shown that babies and young children are able to remember music tones and new words better after a nap or good quality sleep. Once your new memories are put into permanent storage, the brain also needs to organize this information. Depending on the stage of sleep, the brain is literally sorting through and getting rid of “junk” information and keeping the necessary things.

Sleep helps the brain restore: our brain is made of billions of brain cells. Each cell has limbs (axons) and branches (dendrites). To make the connection between other brain cells, there are little connectors called synapses:

During the day, these synapses expand to take in more information and communicate it over the network. When you sleep, the synapses contract and get stronger and stronger. This creates a more fluid, and more efficient information high way for the brain.

Sleep helps the brain retain abilities: depending on the stage, sleep is vitally important when it comes to retaining motor abilities. For children with special needs, they will take a longer time to develop certain motor functions so the more sleep they can get, the better! In lighter stage sleep in the early morning, your brain is reinforcing and working out the motor cortex. So, even for athletes this can be a very beneficial time — don’t even think about early morning training! Your brain is getting the workout.

Sleep helps the brain to clean up: specifically in REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, your brain does a spring cleaning. While you’re dreaming, your brain is snipping away old neural connections that don’t work anymore, and reinforcing the new, stronger connections. In addition, studies have also shown that the brain is also getting rid of beta-amyloid, a metabolic by-product that builds up when sleep deprived. Giving the brain the chance to clear that could lower your risk of developing neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.

For parents with children with special needs, making sure their child is getting the best sleep possible is key to their brain growth and development. In many ways, it’s just as important as providing the brain the nutrients it needs through food. Now you know all the amazing neurological benefits — make sure sleep is a priority for the whole family!

Not sure your child is getting their best night’s sleep? Schedule a free discovery call to learn more, and how sleep training can benefit your child with special needs.