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A Snooze Can Help Make Preschoolers Smart

The hidden benefits of daytime z’s

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Here’s a savvy reason to keep your cutie’s daytime naps going a bit longer: A midday nap may lock in learning.
Midday Naps Improve Learning

Research conducted by the University of Arizona suggests that a well-timed daytime nap may make your three-year-old smarter. In a study, scientists found that kids who napped within an hour after learning new info—in this case, made-up words—had a better understanding of those words 24 hours later, compared with same-age kids who skipped an afternoon snooze.

What We Know

Researchers gathered 39 “typically developing” three-year-old children to take part in the study. They taught each participant two new nonsense verbs the kids had never heard before. Because the words were fake, they do not appear in any dictionary.

Why nonsense verbs instead of nouns?

Nouns, researchers explained, denote specific objects—mommy, daddy, and dog, for example—and little ones catch on to that concept rather early, often before their first birthday, researchers said.

Verbs, or action words, are another story.

According to experts, to understand a verb, a listener (or reader) must be able to identify the verb in various contexts—first, understanding the meaning of the word, and then understanding whether that action happened in the past, is happening now, or will happen in the future. That’s a big job for little children. Think about it: The first five to ten words your child learned were, most likely, nouns. Verbs kicked in a lot later.

With that in mind, University of Arizona investigators taught their study children the two fake verbs—“blicking” and “rooping”—and using a computer screen showed the tots animated characters performing two separate full-body gestures.

Some kids were then sent off to nap within an hour of learning the fake words; others hit the sheets a full five hours later. Twenty-four hours after that, researchers brought the kids back to the computer screens where they saw two new characters performing the same gestures.

The Nappers Nail It

In the University of Arizona study, preschool kids who napped within an hour of learning the new words were better able to identify the words than were those who drifted off to sleep later.

Those findings are consistent with those from other studies involving infants and toddlers.

One study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences a while back found that babies who napped longest in a four-hour period after learning new information, and later slept soundly through the night, retained info better than did babies who slept for 30 minutes or less after learning new material, even if they too had slept soundly through the night.

In another experiment involving 40 three- to five-year old children, University Massachusetts Amherst investigators found that study youngsters

performed significantly better on visual-spatial tasks, recalling 10 percent more information they were being tested on after napping, compared with the amount of information they retained when they were kept awake following the experiment and lunch.

Bottom Line: Nappers 3, Non-Nappers 0

While the experiments above involved different groups of kids and experts, and took place in separate settings, researchers agree that naps—and sleep in general—is important for memory consolidation in youngsters.

The University of Massachusetts team, purported to be the first to link naps to memory consolidation in preschool children, said that while older preschool kids may abandon a midday snooze, younger preschoolers should be encouraged to keep napping. To be at their most alert, experts say, preschool children need 11 to 13 hours of sleep in a 24-hour period to unwind, reboot, and get ready for the next day—at night or in combination with afternoon z’s.

Try these tips if you meet resistance:
  • Establish a set wind-down routine and time midday and stick to it. Alternately, simply aim for an hour of quiet time in your family room or child’s bedroom.
  • Get moving. If your child can’t settle down, drive carpool or run an errand and let the motion of the car ease your kid to sleep.