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Babies Really Don’t Sleep

‘The adult brain shuts down nightly, like an office block, for routine maintenance. In the newborn, the cleaners are wandering around all day long. The supervisor has gone missing. The technicians are reinstalling software and upgrading the phone system even as a poor drone is trying to work.

For the neonate, this means that, whatever kind of consciousness she has, it is maintained more or less around the clock. As a result, her sleeping brain is very far from being cut off from what is going on around it. EEG studies have shown that newborns’ brains, unlike adults’, remain active during all phases of sleep and wakefulness. Not only are they active, but they are also sensitive to incoming information. One important gauge of such sensitivity, known as the visually evoked response, is a measure of how the brain’s electrical activity responds to a visual stimulus such as a flash of light. In adults, the visually evoked response is almost abolished during dreaming sleep, whereas in neonates it is present twenty-four hours a day. Newborns seem to be switched on all the time, even when, to the observer, they seem furthest adrift in dreams.’

– Charles Fernyhough, The Baby in the Mirror: A Child’s World from Birth to Three.

Hmm, maybe this is why I had to hold my babies at all times when they were tiny… (Yes, I did that, with all four of them. Yes, it was frequently inconvenient and a bit annoying. It’s the sort of thing that slings and cosleeping makes easier, but not actually easy.)

‘The Baby in the Mirror’ is just a lovely book. The author is a developmental psychologist, and when his daughter, Athena, was born, he set out to observe and document her development and how it matched up with the science he was expecting. The book explains the way that brain development unfolds, primarily from the child’s point of view, but also from that of a new father, falling in love and wonder with his baby girl.

It’s full of surprising and fascinating little snippets like this one – things I never knew about just-born babies, as well as older toddlers. Another is that newborn babies seem to have similar sensory wiring as in adults with synaesthesia – where the senses are ‘mixed up’, so visual stimuli can evoke tastes, or smells can have colours – which struck me as an incredible example of how different a baby’s world may be from our own, and how much of the brain’s wiring is formed after birth in that delicate dance between a baby and his family; driven by a standard developmental path but shaped in a thousand tiny ways by the interactions around him.

If you are pregnant, then it’s the ideal time to read this book; if you have a child under three, you’ll recognise much that it describes and perhaps find some useful ideas for understanding them; and if you have older children (or grandchildren, or have known any children, ever) then you’ll just find it interesting and possibly nostalgic. Either way, I reckon you’ll enjoy it.

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