Why Swinging Makes You Fall Asleep Faster

Mother and Baby in Hammock
Swinging helps you to fall asleep faster. Credit: Jakob Helbig/The Image Bank/Getty Images

By measuring brain wave activity in sleeping adults, researchers have determined what many of us suspected—that gently swinging makes us fall asleep faster and promotes a deeper sleep. They have discovered that rocking increases the length of time spent in a stage of non-rapid eye movement sleep called N2 sleep. During this stage, bursts of brain activity called sleep spindles occur as the brain attempts to stop processing and brain waves become slower and more synchronized.

Enhancing the amount of time spent in N2 sleep is not only conducive to a deeper sleep, but is also thought to help improve memory and brain repair mechanisms.

Sleep is characterized by periods of non-rapid eye movement that are periodically interrupted by intervals of rapid eye movement (REM). It is in the non-rapid eye movement stage that neuron activity slows and ceases in areas of the brain such as the brainstem and cerebral cortex. The part of the brain that helps us get a good night's sleep is the thalamus. The thalamus is a limbic system structure that connects areas of the cerebral cortex that are involved in sensory perception and movement with other parts of the brain and spinal cord that also have a role in sensation and movement. The thalamus regulates sensory information and controls sleep and awake states of consciousness. The thalamus reduces the perception of and response to sensory information such as sound during sleep.

Benefits of Sleep

Getting a good night's sleep is not only important for a healthy brain, but for a healthy body as well. Getting at least seven hours of sleep helps our immune system fight off infection from viruses and bacteria. Other health benefits of sleep include:

Sleep Clears the Brain of Toxins

Harmful toxins and molecules are cleansed from the brain during sleep. A system called the glymphatic system opens pathways to allow toxin containing fluid to flow through and from the brain during sleep. When awake, the spaces between brain cells decrease. This greatly reduces fluid flow. When we sleep, the cellular structure of the brain changes. The flow of fluid during sleep is controlled by brain cells called glial cells. These cells also help to insulate nerve cells in the central nervous system. Glial cells are thought to control fluid flow by shrinking when we sleep and swelling when we are awake. Glial cell shrinkage during sleep allows toxins to flow from the brain.

Sleep Enhances Learning in Newborns

There's not a sight that is more peaceful than that of a sleeping infant. Newborns sleep anywhere from 16 to 18 hours a day and studies suggest that they actually learn while they sleep. Researchers from the University of Florida have demonstrated that an infant's brain processes environmental information and produces appropriate responses while in the sleep state. In the study, sleeping infants were induced to squeeze their eyelids together when a tone was sounded and a puff of air was directed at their eyelids.

Soon the babies learned to squeeze their eyelids together when a tone was sounded and no puff of air was administered. The learned eye movement reflex indicates that a portion of the brain, the cerebellum, is functioning normally. The cerebellum is responsible for the coordination of movement by processing and coordinating sensory input. Similar to the cerebrum, the cerebellum contains several folded bulges which add to its surface area and increase the quantity of information that can be processed.

Sleep May Prevent Diabetes

A study from the Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute indicates that getting more sleep can lower the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes in men. The body's ability to process glucose in the blood improved in men who had three nights of adequate sleep after limited hours of sleep during the week.

The study indicates that adequate sleep improves insulin sensitivity. Insulin is a hormone that regulates blood sugar levels. Over time, high levels of glucose in the blood can damage the heart, kidneys, nerves, and other tissues. Maintaining insulin sensitivity reduces the chances of developing diabetes.

Sources:

  • Cell Press. "Need a nap? Find yourself a hammock." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 21 June 2011. (www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/06/110620122030.htm).
  • University of Florida. "Newborn infants learn while asleep; Study may lead to later disability tests." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 18 May 2010. (www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/05/100517172254.htm).
  • NIH/National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. "Brain may flush out toxins during sleep; Sleep clears brain of molecules associated with neurodegeneration: Study." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 17 October 2013. (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/10/131017144636.htm).
  • Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center (LA BioMed). "Getting enough sleep could help prevent type 2 diabetes." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 18 June 2013. (www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/06/130618131848.htmm).