NORWICH, United Kingdom — Toddlers who are constantly taking naps may end up having trouble in school. A new study finds that younger children who nap often have smaller vocabularies and poorer thinking skills.
Parents often worry whether their children are getting too little or too much sleep. The new study suggests that some kids are more efficient at consolidating information during sleep and nap less frequently. Conversely, some youngsters need to nap more often, with these children tending to use fewer words and displaying poorer cognitive skills.
Despite those findings, researchers say cutting down nap time for those children won’t improve brain development. They add that they should be allowed to sleep as frequently and for as long as they need.
“There is a lot of parental anxiety around sleep. Parents worry that their kids don’t nap as much as expected for their age – or nap too frequently and for too long,” says lead researcher Dr. Teodora Gliga from the University of East Anglia in a media release.
“But our research shows that how frequently a child naps reflects their individual cognitive need. Some are more efficient at consolidating information during sleep, so they nap less frequently.”
“Children with smaller vocabularies or a lower score in a measure of executive function, nap more frequently,” Gliga adds. “Young children will naturally nap for as long as they need and they should be allowed to do just that.”
The research team studied 463 children between eight months and three years of age during lockdown in 2020. Parents were asked about their children’s sleep patterns, their ability to focus on a task, keep information in their memory, and the number of words that they understood and could say.
The study authors also asked parents about their socio-economic status – including their neighborhood, income, and education – as well as the amount of screen time and outdoor activities their children engage in.
“Lockdown gave us an opportunity to study children’s intrinsic sleep needs because when children are in childcare, they rarely nap as much as they need to,” Dr. Gliga explains.
“Because nurseries were closed, it meant less disturbance to the children’s natural sleep patterns. None of the children taking part were attending day care. What we found is that the structure of daytime sleep is an indicator of cognitive development.”
“Infants with more frequent but shorter naps than expected for their age had smaller vocabularies, and worse cognitive function. We also found that this negative association between vocabulary and frequency of naps was stronger in older children,” the researcher continues.
“While the majority of parents told us that their child’s sleep was unaffected by lockdown, parents from lower socio-economic backgrounds were more likely to report a worsening in sleep. Screen time increased during lockdown and outdoor activities decreased but these did not explain differences in children’s sleep. Previous work suggested that caregivers should encourage frequent naps, in pre-school children.”
“Our findings suggest that children have different sleep needs – some children may drop naps earlier because they don’t need them anymore. Others may still need to nap past three years of age,” Gliga concludes.
“In the UK, preschools enrolling three to five-year-olds have no provisions for napping. Caregivers should use a child’s mental age and not chronological age to ascertain a child’s sleep needs.”
The study, published in the journal JCPP Advances, was led by UEA researchers in collaboration with scientists at Oxford University, Oxford Brookes University, the University of Leeds, and the University of Warwick.
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South West News Service writer Stephen Beech contributed to this report.