Naps can help young children improve cognitive skills

Recent research shows that there are benefits to letting children sleep in the middle of the day as well as at night.

There are benefits to having children take naps.
There are benefits to having children take naps.

Are your young children getting enough sleep at the appropriate times? With our busy schedules, today’s parents sometimes choose to eliminate afternoon naps. Maybe we think our children will sleep longer at night or we just don’t have the time between activities. Some preschools are cutting back on or eliminating naptime altogether, so that they can fit more learning activities into the daily schedule. Whatever the reason, naptime is shrinking. But recent research shows that there are benefits to letting children sleep in the middle of the day as well as at night.  

The Michigan State University Extension article, Children and sleep: Encourage health habits describes the health benefits that result from sleep routines for young children. It explains the different states of sleep and how each is important for children to achieve a healthy rest time. Now, new evidence is available that gives us more information about how sleep helps children to improve memory skills. In a recent study, Dr. Rebecca Spencer of the University of Massachusetts Amherst and her team found that children who took a nap after a learning game retained more knowledge of that game than children who did not nap. The napping children remembered more about the game even the next day, which shows that the information they gained was more integrated into their knowledge base.  The research team used polysomnography to examine brain activity during sleep. Results of her tests showed a relationship between sleep spindles and memory performance. “The nap was the factor that had strengthened the memories,” said Spencer.

Additional evidence that napping can improve cognitive skills, such as language acquisition, has been presented by Dr. Rebecca Gomez, a psychologist at the University of Arizona. She has researched the effects of sleep on generalization, a process by which children learn to take a newly-acquired concept and apply it to a different but similar situation.  According to Gomez, “Naps soon after learning appear to be particularly important for generalization of knowledge in infants and preschoolers."

Early education experts urge us to use caution when interpreting these results for individual children. Fighting with your preschooler to take a nap can be frustrating and non-productive. Ellen Frede, at Acelero Learning and former preschool teacher, notes that forcing a child to take a nap is “torture for some children.”

As parents, we know our children better than anyone else. Their behavior will provide the clues we need to decide whether or not a nap routine is best for our children. Their overall mood, alertness and energy level will have an impact on whether or not they need to sleep in the middle of the day. And, of course, each child has different sleep needs. One thing is for certain, however. It is a rare child who wants to take a nap. 

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