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AMHERST, Mass. — You might have noticed that some preschoolers are steadfast napping champions, while others have given up the midday snooze entirely. The reason behind this isn’t just about age; it’s more like a brain gym session for little ones.

A groundbreaking study from the University of Massachusetts Amherst reveals a fresh perspective when it comes to napping. Rebecca Spencer, a sleep scientist, and Tracy Riggins, a child psychologist from the University of Maryland, joined forces to unveil their conclusion about what’s actually happening in children’s brains as they transition out of daytime dozing.

“This overarching theory is based on data that we’ve published over the past couple of years; it’s about putting the pieces together,” Spencer says in a university release. “We provide support for a relation between nap transitions and underlying memory and brain development. This is a critical time of development in the brain and sleep has something to do with it.”

Essentially, when small kids nap, their brains are hard at work processing memories and learning. They focus on the hippocampus – the part of the brain that’s like a storage room for memories before they get moved to a more permanent place.

Young girl napping
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Napping ties into brain development

You might wonder, if napping is so beneficial for learning, why do children stop doing it? As Spencer explains it, the hippocampus is like a “bucket” for storing memories.

“When the hippocampus is inefficient, it’s like having a small bucket,” Spencer says. “Your bucket is going to fill up faster and overflow, and some memories will spill out and be forgotten. That’s what we think happens with the kids that are still napping. Their hippocampus is less mature, and they need to empty that bucket more frequently.”

As children grow and their brains develop, their hippocampus becomes more efficient, meaning their “bucket” gets bigger. This allows them to store more memories throughout the day, and they no longer need that nap to make room for new information.

What’s important to note here is that children shouldn’t be rushed out of their napping phase. Spencer emphasizes the importance of letting children nap if they need to.

“Some of them still need it; others may not need it but if they take it, we know that it’s going to benefit their learning,” she says.

So, in a nutshell, napping for little ones is like hitting the gym, but for their brains. It helps in consolidating memories and learning, and not every child is ready to give it up at the same age. This revelation can have significant implications on how we approach napping in early education and child care settings.

In the future, we can look forward to further research that could even lead to methods of assessing if a child needs those precious naps. But for now, letting little ones get their zzz’s could be essential to supercharging their brain development.

The study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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2 Comments

  1. Colleen says:

    Interesting article. I always wondered why my kids gave up naps so early, which was tough on me. I depended on nap time to get a break or to do work I couldn’t get done when they were up, as they were very active inquisitive toddlers.
    All three of mine gave up the morning nap around 9 months and started refusing the afternoon nap by the time they turned 2. I think I was the same way when I was little, so we must be a large hippocampus family – lol!

  2. KATHY DOBBS says:

    I wonder if these studies take into consideration children that are neurodivergent.