Medically reviewed by
Dacelin St Martin, MD
Triple board-certified in Sleep Medicine,
Internal Medicine, and Pediatrics.
Worrying if your child sleeps too little or too much is expected. After all, the early years of life are responsible for significant developmental changes, with sleep being one of the primary factors for healthy cognition in later life.
Napping is common among young children, especially in the preschool years. However, napping patterns may vary depending on the child’s age, culture, and preferences. Some children may nap once or twice a day, while others may not nap at all.
New research has emerged clarifying the bond between napping and brain development in children.
The Importance of Sleep in Early Childhood Development
Sleep is a fundamental physiological process that allows the body and mind to recuperate, regenerate, and develop.
Sleep is even more critical in children due to its profound impact on their growth, learning, and cognitive abilities.
During the early years of life, the brain undergoes remarkable changes, including the formation of millions of neural connections and the pruning of synapses, the brain’s communication systems used to send signals down to the rest of the body.
If a child doesn’t get enough sleep, some of these systems may fail, which can predispose a child to mental illness, behavioral issues, and cognitive impairment in later life.
Against this backdrop, researchers have long emphasized the significance of adequate nighttime sleep for children. However, the role of daytime naps in contributing to overall brain development has gained increasing attention in recent studies.
Parents often wonder if their children’s napping habits are beneficial or disruptive to their sleep schedule, and it’s essential to understand the science behind these concerns.
The Connection: Napping & Cognitive Development
As adults, there’s very little in life that can trump the pleasure that a nap brings. They make us feel more rested, happy, and able to handle the day.
However, the relationship between napping and cognitive development is multifaceted in children. It’s not just about the quantity of sleep a child gets but also the timing and consistency of their napping routine.
For children, napping is a byproduct of hyperactivity from play, learning, parenting practices, and cultural preferences.
Napping helps children recharge their batteries and gives them extra energy later in the day.
Where previous studies have suggested that children who nap during the day are more likely to develop specific behavioral conditions, researchers have found that a regular and well-structured napping schedule can lead to better cognitive outcomes.
The study demonstrates how the frequency of a child’s nap reflects their cognitive requirements, whereby children with smaller vocabularies and memory skills may benefit from more regular naps.
Adequate daytime naps have been linked to improvements in various cognitive functions, providing children with the mental tools they need to navigate the challenges of growing up. Last but not least, napping can positively impact a child’s emotional development. Young children often struggle to manage their emotions, leading to tantrums and mood swings.
Striking the Right Balance
While the benefits of napping are clear, parents need to find the right balance and ensure that their child’s sleep patterns align with their developmental needs.
If you find it difficult to resist your child’s cuteness overload when asking for a nap, here are some guidelines to consider:
- Establish a regular napping schedule to help regulate your child’s body clock and allow consistency.
- Plan naps to align with your child’s natural circadian rhythm so they don’t interfere with nighttime sleep.
- Create a conducive nap environment – a quiet, dark, and comfortable space that signals it’s time to rest.
- Remember that your child is unique. Understanding your child’s individual sleep preferences and patterns should guide your approach.
The next time you watch your child drift off into a midday slumber, remember that it’s not just a simple nap; it’s a powerful mechanism shaping their future cognitive prowess and emotional well-being.
Remember, children have different needs. his new research sheds light on a new perspective: napping reflects a child’s developmental requirements and is not a byproduct of an underlying problem.
Cherish the rest you’ll get while your child naps, and rest assured that you’re nurturing your child’s development one sleep at a time.
- Chaput, J., Gray, C., Poitras, V. J., Carson, V., Gruber, R., Birken, C. S., MacLean, J. E., Aubert, S., Sampson, M., & Tremblay, M. S. (2017). Systematic review of the relationships between sleep duration and health indicators in the early years (0–4 years). BMC Public Health, 17(S5). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-017-4850-2
- Gliga, T. (n.d.). More frequent naps are associated with lower cognitive development in a cohort of 8–38-month-old children, during the Covid-19 pandemic. Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health. https://doi.org/10.1002/jcv2.12190
- Brain Architecture. (2019, August 20). Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. https://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/brain-architecture/
- Children’s sleep linked to brain development. (2022, September 13). National Institutes of Health (NIH). https://www.nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/children-s-sleep-linked-brain-development
- Lam, J., Mahone, E. M., Mason, T. B., & Scharf, S. M. (2011). The Effects of Napping on Cognitive Function in Preschoolers. Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, 32(2), 90–97. https://doi.org/10.1097/dbp.0b013e318207ecc7
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- Cremone, A., Kurdziel, L. B. F., Fraticelli-Torres, A., McDermott, J. M., & Spencer, R. M. C. (2016). Napping reduces emotional attention bias during early childhood. Developmental Science, 20(4), e12411. https://doi.org/10.1111/desc.12411