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Naps During School? For Preschoolers, Yes

Midday naps give a boost memory and learning in pre-school aged children.

Think naptime for pre-schoolers during the school day might be time better spent in educational activities? Think again. New research shows that a midday nap may play a crucial role in enhancing memory and boosting learning capabilities in pre-school age children. 

Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst investigated how naps influence memory and learning in young children. They found that a regular habit of midday naps increased memory and cognitive skills among pre-school children—a boost that their study showed was not replicated by overnight sleep in the absence of a daytime nap. Researchers studied more than 40 pre-schoolers at 6 different schools. They conducted two different experiments—one centered on a learning and memory game taught to children, and the other involved observing brain activity among young children during their naps using polysomnography. In the learning exercise, children were shown a grouping of pictures and then had to recall the placement of individual pictures within the group. All the children learned the game at the same time in the morning. Researchers then split the children into two groups. One group took naps lasting an average of 75 minutes and the other group stayed awake. Researchers had the all the children perform the same exercise they’d learned in the morning after some had napped and others had not. Researchers also tested the children on the memory exercise the next day, to evaluate how a night of sleep might influence the children’s recall. They found that daytime naps were associated with significantly greater memory recall:

  • The children, when tested on the same day they learned the exercise, all performed roughly the same whether they had napped or not
  • When tested the following day, children who had napped after learning the game the day before were able to remember significantly more of the picture locations than those who had not napped.
  • The children who performed best on the memory test were those for whom daytime naps were a regular, consistent habit. 

In the second experiment, researchers observed brain activity of a different group of pre-school children while they were napping. They found an increase in the density of sleep spindles—bursts of electrical activity in the brain that are believed to play a significant role in memory consolidation, the process by which the brain takes newly acquired information and converts it to longer-term memory. Researchers were able to associate the increase in sleep spindle density they observed among the napping pre-schoolers to improvements in the children’s memory skills. 

These study results provide some important and potentially significant new insight into the purpose and importance of naps in young children. The function of naps among pre-school age children has not been well studied. Parents may know well from experience the mood and behavioral consequences of a missed nap, but science doesn’t actually yet know very much about the biological purpose that naps serve for children this age. A recent study by researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder investigated the effects of naps on emotional and cognitive responses in children ages 2-3, and found that inconsistent napping was associated with diminished emotional and cognitive behavior. Missing a single nap led to an increase in children’s expression of anxiety and negative emotions, while also diminishing the expression of positive feelings of joy and excitement. Missed naps also were associated with greater difficulty in problem solving among these young children. 

We don’t know nearly enough yet about the role of naps in the cognitive, social, and emotional development of young children, but we do know that sleep in general is important. A significant and growing body of research tells us that sleep is critical to learning and intellectual development, and that disrupted and insufficient sleep, as well as inconsistent sleep routines, can hinder healthy emotional and cognitive development in young children: 

  • Insufficient sleep in young children may slow language development. A study of more than 1,000 twins found that insufficient sleep during the first two years of life was associated with language delays in children to the age of 5.
  • Research shows that young brains may be particularly effective at consolidating newly learned information into longer-term memory during sleep. A study of memory and learning that compared children and adults found that both groups performed better at recalling recently learned information after a night’s sleep—but that children outperformed adults.
  • Children who experience sleep-disrupted breathing—including snoring, sleep apnea, and mouth breathing—exhibit diminished cognitive and intellectual abilities, as well as lower academic performance, compared to children whose breathing during sleep is not disrupted. Studies of the prevalence of sleep-disordered breathing among children are relatively few, but research indicates that as many as 25% of children in the United States may exhibit some form of sleep-disordered breathing at age 6.
  • It’s not just the amount and the quality of sleep that matter, but also the regularity of sleep routines that can have an effect on child development. A large-scale study in the United Kingdom revealed that inconsistent bedtimes among children ages 3-7 were associated with lower test scores in reading, math, and spatial awareness. 

This latest study provides us with some new insight into the particular importance for daytime sleep for young children, even after they have begun school. Sleep is essential to learning and healthy cognitive function at all ages. The early years of childhood are a time of remarkable growth and learning—biologically, intellectually, socially, and emotionally. Young children, as a result, may be especially in need of memory-consolidating daytime rest in order to experience healthy development and growth. Policymakers, teachers, and parents can support this healthy development by making naps a continuing—and consistent—priority for their busy and active pre-schoolers. 

Sweet Dreams,

Michael J. Breus, PhD

The Sleep Doctor®

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