Naps aren’t just good for keeping preschoolers from getting too cranky in the afternoon, they also help them learn.
A new study from the University of Arizona suggests naptime plays an important role in language learning in preschool-age children. Researchers studied verb learning in 3-year-olds and found that those who napped after learning new verbs had a better understanding of the words when tested 24 hours later.
The findings suggest that parents may want to consider maintaining regular naptimes for preschoolers, who are at an age at which naps have a tendency to dwindle, said lead study author Michelle Sandoval.
Sandoval and her colleagues tested 39 typically developing 3-year-olds, divided into two groups: habitual nappers (those who nap four or more days a week) and non-habitual nappers (those who nap three or fewer days per week). Within each group, children were randomly assigned to either a napping condition, in which they would nap for at least 30 minutes after learning a new verb, or a wakefulness condition, in which they would not nap after learning.
Experimenters taught the children two made-up verbs — “blicking” and “rooping” — and showed them a video in which two different actors performed separate whole-body actions to correspond with each verb.
Twenty-four hours later, the children were shown videos of two new actors performing the same actions they learned the previous day and were asked to point at which person was “blicking” and which was “rooping.”
Children who had napped within about an hour of learning the verbs performed better than those who stayed awake for at least five hours after learning, regardless of whether they were habitual nappers.
Researchers were interested in napping’s effects on preschoolers in particular because that tends to be an age when children start napping less. While an infant between birth and 6 months old may take up to six naps a day, many children are down to one nap or no naps a day by preschool.
Researchers think the learning benefit of napping could come from what is known as slow-wave sleep.
“There’s a lot of evidence that different phases of sleep contribute to memory consolidation, and one of the really important phases is slow-wave sleep, which is one of the deepest forms of sleep,” said study co-author Rebecca Gómez, UA associate professor of psychology, cognitive science, and second language acquisition and teaching.
“It’s important to create opportunities for children to nap — to have a regular time in their schedule that they could do that,” Gómez said.