Sleep across the first year of life is prospectively associated with brain volume in 12-months old infants

Katharina Pittner, Jerod Rasmussen, Miranda M. Lim, John H. Gilmore, Martin Styner, Sonja Entringer, Pathik D. Wadhwa, Claudia Buss


Longer sleep duration in infancy supports cognitive and affective functioning – likely through effects on brain development. From childhood through old age, there is evidence for a close link between sleep and brain volume. However, little is known about the association between sleep duration and brain volume in infancy, a developmental period of unprecedented brain maturation. This study aimed to close this gap by assessing sleep duration across the first year of life and gray and white matter volume at 12-mo age.


Infant sleep duration trajectories across the first year of life were based on maternal reports at 1, 3, 6, 9, and 12 months of age. Infant specific trajectories were generated by running a logarithmic regression for each infant and residualizing the resulting slopes for their intercept. Structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans were acquired at 12-mo age. Gray and white matter volume estimates were residualized for intracranial volume and age at scan.


Data to calculate sleep trajectories was available for 112 infants. Overall, sleep duration decreased over the course of the first year of life and was best described by a logarithmic function. Of these infants, data on brain volume was available for 45 infants at 12-mo age. Infants whose sleep duration decreased less during the first year of life relative to their intercept had, on average, greater white matter volume (β = .36, p = .02). Furthermore, average sleep duration across the first year of life, and sleep duration specifically at 6 and 9 months were positively associated with white matter volume. Sleep duration during the first year of life was not significantly associated with gray matter volume at 12-mo age.


Sufficient sleep duration may benefit infant white matter development – possibly by supporting myelination. The fact that sleep duration was not associated with gray matter volume is in line with preclinical studies suggesting that sleep may be crucial for the balance between synaptogenesis and synaptic pruning but not necessarily relate to a net increase in gray matter volume. Supporting sleep during periods of rapid brain development and intervening in case of sleep problems may have long-term benefits for cognitive function and mental health.

Neurobiol Sleep Circadian Rhythms. 14:100091 (2023)


brain developmentgray matter volumeinfancysleepwhite matter volume
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