Rocked To Sleep — Not Just For Babies Anymore

By Dr. Michael J. Breus

It’s the simplest of soothing, sleep-inducing remedies, something we all naturally do: rocking a baby gently to sleep.

Long after we’ve left childhood, we all can be deeply affected by this relaxing rocking motion. Think of the peaceful glide of a porch swing, sleeping on a boat or the calming sway of a hammock nap.

A recent study seems to back up this feeling with scientific facts. The study suggests that rocking does indeed have an effect on our ability to fall asleep — as well as on the quality of the sleep itself.

Researchers at the University of Geneva, Switzerland tested the effects of rocking on sleep in a dozen adult men between the ages of 22 and 38. All the men involved were good sleepers — none were suffering from any sleep or anxiety disorders and they were well-rested at the time of the experiment. Researchers created a special bed that mimicked the rocking of a hammock and had the men take two 45-minute naps. During one nap the bed gently rocked and during the other nap the bed remained still. While their subjects slept, researchers measured brain activity using an electroencephalogram (EEG).

Here’s what they found:

  • Every one of the participants fell asleep more quickly during their rocking nap.

  • A majority (eight out of 12) said they found the rocking nap “more pleasant” than the nap on the stationary bed.

  • During the rocking nap, all of the sleepers moved more quickly from Stage 1 to Stage 2 of their sleep cycle. Stage 2 is where we typically spend half of our sleep time over the course of a night.

  • While rocking, sleepers showed significant increases in the types of brain-wave activity that are specifically associated with deeper, more restful and more continuous sleep.

These findings regarding brain-wave activity are really fascinating. In Stage 2 sleep, a couple of important things happen:

  • Brain waves slow down from stage 1

  • Sleep spindles — short bursts of electrical activity in the brain — occur.

Sleep spindles are a kind of noise barrier created by the brain. Their presence seems to help us stay asleep when faced with noises and external stimulation that might otherwise wake us. People whose brains generate more sleep spindles seem better able to sleep through certain noises and interruptions — whether it’s a snoring bed partner or an ill-timed car alarm on the street.

Based on these results, the researchers suggest that a rocking motion has the effect of helping to synchronize the brain for sleep — both to fall asleep more quickly and possibly to achieve longer periods of deep, uninterrupted sleep.

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