In infancy and early toddlerhood, naps are a blessing and a must for a peaceful home. However, as schedules, preschool, classes and life generally intrude, there’s pressure to “drop the nap” once kids reach age three or so. A new study indicates you should hang onto that nap. Napping’s benefits for children far outweigh a less crabby afternoon.
The Nap: Vital to Emotional Development
The study, called “Sleep-Dependent Enhancement of Emotional Memory in Early Childhood,” headed by Laura Kurdziel at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, was published in Nature. Through the study, Kurdziel discovered naps offer a different sort of respite from nighttime sleep and work in conjunction with REM states for better social-emotional learning.
The study focused on a final sample of 49 children. Before their nap, the children were read stories showing pictures of characters, some really nice, some mean. Then they napped (with electrodes attached to their heads), and the type of brain activity present during naptime was measured. Nighttime sleep brain activity was measured, as well. The kids were questioned the following morning about the story from the previous day.
“What we’d be looking at is their ability to remember people in their experience that were positive or negative,” Kurdziel said. “And then we’d also do the same thing the following morning after overnight sleep. And what we were finding was following the nap we really didn’t see a whole lot of benefit. But then the next morning, if they had napped, they remembered significantly more of these faces.”
This 24-hour sample of sleep brain activity showed something fascinating: naptime and nighttime sleep were completely different. Naptime was free of REM sleep, while nighttime sleep hosted a variety of sleep states.
“We found that what was really important was that the nap was leading to changes in processing overnight,” Kurdziel explained. “So it was the combination of the nap and that overnight sleep together that led them to have this overall benefit.”
The scores in terms of memory were significant: “I would say about a 10% increase in their memory for these images was very significant if they had naps the day before and gotten a good night’s sleep.”
The final analysis? Keep the nap going. “So this research to me suggests that naps need to be part of a conversation about children’s development, especially within the realm of social-emotional learning,” Kurdziel recommended, “and that encouraging children to nap even in this timeframe when children naturally start to wean themselves off of napping.”
Some Ways to Keep Naptime In Your Child’s Life
Obviously, you can’t force your child to nap, but there’s plenty of ways to encourage them.
Preschool-aged kids start to push back against rules, demanding autonomy. Still, it’s possible to keep the nap as a part of the child’s schedule. Perhaps it’s termed as quiet time in their room, or rest time after lunch. If they pass out then, great. If they don’t, so be it.
According to Kurdziel, if a child starts skipping a nap when they’re not really ready, there will be consequences. Skipping a nap, as it turns out, doesn’t make them more tired at bedtime; it often does just the opposite.
“So if a child actually really needs a nap and they don’t take a nap during the day, bedtimes will actually be harder,” Kurdziel said. “You’re stressing the body, you’re stressing the brain by having them basically be sleep-deprived.”
Many preschools incorporate a nap into their everyday schedule, which is excellent for your child. As they grow older, the duration of their naps will naturally shorten, until they eventually abandon them altogether (only to have them come back with a vengeance once they’re 40 or so).
“They’ll still fall asleep at their typical naptime and then wake up a little earlier and a little earlier. And that’s the brain naturally telling them that they don’t need that nap anymore,” Kurdziel said.
The blog The Happiest Baby has some tips to help settle your toddler in for that all-important nap.
- Engaging in quiet play or reading a book together 30 minutes before naptime is helpful.
- Darkening the room itself helps.
- Play some soothing white noise, either using a machine or fan.