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What's Going On When Babies Twitch In Their Sleep?

August 09, 2016
Sleeping Babies Twitch

When her daughter was born two-and-a-half years ago, Mary Goldsberry-Troyer eagerly watched for the typical developmental milestones in her firstborn. She noted when Vivi smiled, rolled over, and took her first step.

But when Ben was born two months ago, Goldsberry-Troyer tuned in to more than her son’s wake-time activities. She also studied Ben’s movements as he slept.

What this Iowa City mom noticed was an activity that Mark Blumberg, a professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Iowa, has been studying for two decades: sleep twitches—those little jerks and spasms of the arms and legs, fingers and toes, eyes and eyelids, head, mouth, cheek, and brow that most people assume are just responses to dreams.

Not so, says Blumberg and research scientist Greta Sokoloff.

They believe twitches during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep are linked to sensorimotor development—that when the sleeping body twitches, it’s activating circuits throughout the developing brain and teaching newborns about their limbs and what they can do with them. Researchers believe understanding early motor development and early sensorimotor development is key to understanding typical development and can also provide clues to understanding such neurodevelopmental disorders as autism and schizophrenia.

“Although often overlooked, there is a substantial problem with the sensorimotor system in these disorders,” Blumberg says.

Until recently, UI researchers had worked most extensively with baby rats, monitoring their brain activity for clues to the functions of twitching. But over the past year, parents like Goldsberry-Troyer have been helping UI researchers by allowing them to study their children as they sleep in the lab. Parents are also being recruited online to share observations of their children’s sleep twitches, as well as their physical activities while awake. 

If all goes as planned, the UI researchers hope to reveal patterns in the relationship between sleep twitches and the motor skills displayed by babies while awake. Though it’s too soon to draw conclusions, early observations show they could be on the right track.

Read the full article on IowaNow.


Share your observations with Dr. Blumberg and Dr. Sokoloff

If you have a child between the ages of two weeks and 18 months, you can take this questionnaire to share your observations of their sleep twitches and wake behaviors with UI researchers.