Fighting For Enough Sleep... In Preschool?

Fighting For Enough Sleep... In Preschool?

By Jennifer Warner
Reviewed by Pat F. Bass, III, M.D., MPH

Napping may be something many parents of young children take for granted, but you may need to fight for it at your child's preschool.

New research has suggested that napping plays an important role in helping preschoolers learn because it allows them to consolidate memories. The findings come at a time when many preschools are considering eliminating nap time because of increasing curriculum demands.

How Nap Time Helps Preschoolers Learn
Previous studies have shown that sleep enhances learning in young adults. However, the latest study was one of the first to look at what happens to young children’s brains during naps.

"It showed us that naps do have a function, and that function is to benefit learning," said Rebecca Spencer, Ph.D., an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and a study co-author. "That is an important function, particularly if in preschool the goal is to promote school readiness."

In the study, researchers played a memory game with 40 preschool children. In the morning, the children learned where images were located on a grid. Then they either took an afternoon nap or were quietly kept awake for about an hour and 15 minutes. After the nap or quiet time, the preschoolers were tested again on the same task. The researchers found that the children who napped did a better job of remembering where the images were than did those who had quiet time. The nappers recalled an average of 10 percent more images than the children who didn't nap.

"It shows naps help protect memories," said Spencer.

To understand how naps might enhance learning in youngsters, the researchers then measured the brain waves during naps of another 14 preschoolers. They found that children experienced the kind of faster brain wave activity associated with memory preservation during even short naps of 20 minutes.

Spencer compared the repeating brain activity found during naps to replaying a movie over and over in the brain that helps it retain the memory for a longer period. "It makes the memory more stable and moves it from temporary storage to a more permanent place in the brain," she said. The results suggest naps pack away the information preschoolers learn in the morning and create a new foundation for learning new things in the afternoon.

Napping And Learning At Your Child's Preschool
Preschool policies on napping vary from state to state and school to school. Some states, like Massachusetts, have recently loosened state regulations on napping to require a minimum amount of "quiet time" rather than requiring the opportunity to nap.

Spencer said it's important to ask preschool teachers what the school's napping policy is, and how your child is adjusting.

"If your child is not napping, you should know the answer why," she said.

Based on these results, the researchers said that getting rid of preschool nap times may be premature until more is known about the role that naps play in learning.

"All of the emphasis is on what more can we get into the preschool day rather than what is already in the preschool day," said Spencer.

Taming Napping Troubles
Spencer said that the preschool teachers in her study were remarkably successful in getting children to nap. Some strategies to promote napping included foot rubbing, holding a heavy hand on the child’s back, and minimizing distractions.

Sometimes having a conversation with children and telling them that you think napping is important or reading books with them about the importance of sleep can be enough to get children to nap.

"You can teach a preschooler why we sleep like we teach them why we brush our teeth," Spencer said.

If your child is not allowed to nap at preschool or is transitioning to a kindergarten where napping isn’t permitted, prepare the child in advance for the change, said Alyssa Cairns, Ph.D., a sleep research scientist at SleepMed Inc. in Columbia, S.C.

"Gradual change is better than abrupt change,” said Cairns. “Gradually phase out naps and increase nighttime sleep time. If they're a one-hour-a-day napper, you may need to back up the bedtime a half-hour and extend the wake-up time."

The Fight For Adequate Sleep... In Preschool? originally appeared on Everyday Health

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