December 2013

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Health Capsule

Naps Can Aid Learning in Preschoolers

Afternoon naps can enhance memory and support learning in preschoolers, a new study reports. The finding hints that making time for naps in the classroom might be helpful during early childhood.

Although plenty of studies have shown that overnight sleep and brief naps can boost learning and memory in adults, the effects of napping on toddlers hadn’t been closely examined. To learn more, NIH-funded scientists played a memory game with 40 preschoolers. In the morning, the children learned where 9 or 12 cartoon images were located on a grid. Then the children either took an afternoon nap (about 1 hour and 15 minutes) or were gently kept awake.

After nap time, the children were tested to see how well they could remember the locations of the cartoon images. The scientists found that children could recall 10% more of the items’ locations when they napped than when they’d been kept awake. Children who’d napped had similar success in remembering items’ locations even the next morning. The researchers also found that the benefits of napping were greatest for the children who regularly took naps.

To explore how memories might be stored in the brain, the team measured the brain waves of 14 additional children during naps. The researchers noticed a link between distinct bursts of brain activity during napping and a child’s performance on memory tests. These bursts of activity might represent the strengthening of memories, the scientists suggest.

“We hope these results will be used by policy makers and center directors to make educated decisions regarding nap opportunities in the classrooms,” says the study’s lead researcher, Dr. Rebecca Spencer at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.