Can Listening to the Alphabet While Sleeping Help Toddlers Learn?

By Melinda Kedro
Toddlers process information during sleep.
Toddlers process information during sleep.

A myriad of modern techniques to enhance your child's learning permeate parenting websites, magazines and blogs. One method you may be curious about is whether playing recordings of the alphabet or other age-appropriate educational material while your toddler sleeps could promote his learning.

Learning While Asleep

Research conducted at the Weizmann Institute of Science demonstrates that people can indeed learn new information while asleep. The study recorded the response of participants who -- while sleeping -- were exposed to various smells, such as rotting fish and shampoo, paired with a specific auditory tone. Upon waking, the participants exhibited that their brains had made neural connections between the smell and the tone with which it was associated during sleep, suggesting that the human brain can generate new intelligence during the sleep cycle. Research at the University of Florida shows that infants also learn during sleep. In the study, sleeping infants would hear an auditory tone along with a puff of air administered to the eyelids. The infants learned to squeeze their eyelids shut when the tone sounded, even when the puff of air was not administered -- evidence that learning was occurring during sleep.

Importance of Sleep for Toddlers

The National Sleep Foundation emphasizes the relevance of adequate sleep for growing children. Toddlers between the age of 1 and 3 need an average of 10 to 13 hours of sleep at night. The developing brain uses sleep as a time to assimilate, process and organize the plethora of information that was absorbed throughout the day's activities. The Environmental Protection Agency warns against exposing your child to elevated amounts of noise. While playing soft music at bedtime most likely won't hinder your child's development, continuous sound during sleep may become invasive.

The Absorbent Nature of a Child's Mind

Maria Montessori, an Italian doctor who developed the Montessori method of education, recognized that infants, toddlers and preschoolers learn through the use of their "absorbent mind." Children instinctively, unconsciously and naturally take in everything in their environment as a way to learn and adapt. By surrounding your child with images of the alphabet and providing toys and learning materials that support his cognitive development, he intuitively assimilates the information on his own. Montessori's theory of the absorbent nature of a child's mind in conjunction with the aforementioned studies regarding the brain's ability to learn while sleeping suggests that playing the alphabet while your toddler sleeps could likely increase his retention of the alphabet. Sufficient exposure to alphabet learning materials throughout the day, however, is presumably ample for your purposes.

Other Ways to Promote Learning

Based on the studies and evidence, it's plausible that your toddler may benefit from having the alphabet played in his room while he sleeps. It may be more constructive, however, to emphasize the importance of a consistent sleep schedule so that your child receives adequate sleep to process the incredible amount of new information that his brain has taken in during his waking hours. Set aside 20 minutes a day to focus specifically on alphabet games. Have a set of letter cards accessible. Help your child to identify letter symbols, as well as the phonetic sound each letter makes. Initial sounds of words help children identify and retain alphabet information, such as "M" is for "moon" and "C" is for "cat." There are many ways to promote alphabet learning that are probably more effective than relying on a soundtrack being played during sleep.

About the Author

With more than 10 years experience in early childhood education, Melinda Kedro holds a Masters degree in education, teaching certification through the Association Montessori Internationale and is a licensed childcare provider through the Colorado Department of Human Services.