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A Hidden Benefit of Napping for Preschoolers

baby napping

Photo credit: Heather Neal

You don’t need to tell me twice how important sleep is for young kids, toddlers, and babies — even adults! Trust me, I know. I know because my kid doesn’t get it. Get enough sleep, that is.

Sleep has single-handedly been the absolute most difficult part of our journey as parents so far. (And that includes dealing with food allergies.) We’ve lost hours of our own precious sleep, we’ve argued over how to make him sleep, we’ve spent money on books and gadgets, and we’ve endured countless “recommendations” from parents that obviously know better than we do. But guess what? None of it helped.

It’s so obvious what a difference sleep makes for our toddler. He’s a pretty happy kid as far as toddlers go, but when he actually takes a good nap (we’re talking maybe an hour here), he’s purely delightful. He’s in a better mood, he learns better, he picks up on things quicker, and we secretly hope it helps him grow a little taller (we’ll take what we can get, right?). It’s easy for us to see this as parents because we’re so attuned to our son, but it’s not just us imagining the benefit of napping we see in our heads. Sleep, and naps in particular, really, truly help make kids smarter.

According to research by a professor of psychology and neuroscience at University of Massachusetts Amherst, Dr. Rebecca Spencer, preschool aged kids who are used to napping really do need that afternoon nap to be able to learn.

To come to this conclusion, Dr. Spencer played a memory game with a group of preschool children in the morning. After naptime and the next day after a full night’s sleep, she tested them again. Some children were encouraged to nap during the afternoon; others were kept awake. The kids that missed their nap performed worse on the memory game after the missed nap. Those that napped remember 75% of the material as opposed to those that didn’t nap who remember 65%.

It may seem minor, but Dr. Spencer states, “For those that nap habitually, they lose 15 percent of what they learned in the morning when they don’t nap.” That’s a lot of things to forget just because of a missed nap!

Another doctor, Sanjeev Kothare, M.D., the Director of the Pediatric Sleep Program at the NYU Langone Medical Center agrees and expands, “Sleep is important not only for memory consolidation but also for cognitive development.” He continues on to explain,  “The developing brain continues to grow very rapidly in the first two years to 90 percent of adult size. Cognitive development and memory consolidation, which occur during these developing years, are important functions enhanced by healthy sleep, including napping in the first five years.”

Five years? That’s a lot more napping I need to persuade my little guy to do! Luckily Dr. Spencer’s research also revealed that it wasn’t necessarily how long the nap was that affected the preschooler’s memory scores — it was the amount of a specific type of brain wave activity called sleep spindles that occurred during light sleep stages.  (More sleep spindles led to better memory scores.)

This directly goes against some preschools’ decisions to cut out or cut down on naptime so they can spend more time teaching the children. While that sounds good in theory, this research shows that it might be counter-intuitive.

Not only do naps help kids learn, they can help adults too — and not just for learning. Naps may have health benefits as well such as lowered blood pressure, weight maintenance, and lower stress levels.

Here’s to hoping my toddler keeps napping straight on through preschool (and that 20 minute catnaps count)!

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