Parents may feel it's clear that missing a nap means their young children will be grumpy and out-of-sorts, but scientists who study sleep say almost nothing is known about how daytime sleep affects children's coping skills and learning.
Now neuroscientist Rebecca Spencer at the University of Massachusetts Amherst has received a five-year, $2 million grant from NIH's Heart, Lung and Blood Institute to significantly advance knowledge about how napping and sleep affect memory, behavior and emotions in preschoolers.
Spencer says with pressure mounting in some school districts to eliminate naps, "we feel it's important to study this and know their value more precisely. There's a sense among some educators that kids have to 'get over' napping in preparation for kindergarten, but it could be misguided. There's some evidence in young adults and in older children that naps are beneficial. So I suspect there is a benefit for younger children too. We need to know whether keeping naps in the school day is important."
Attending preschool offers life-long benefits in physical health, emotional stability and quality of life, Spencer points out, and in the United States, 70 percent of four- and five-year-olds attend. There is a trend now toward incorporating new curricula in preschool such as anti-bullying messages and lessons on how to brush your teeth. If sleep protects and enhances physical and emotional learning in young children as it does in older kids, taking away naptime could undercut such efforts, she adds.
"Right now, there's nothing to support teachers who feel that naps can really help young children, there's no concrete science behind that," the neuroscientist says. "But if sleep is going to enhance all these benefits of attending preschool, we need to know it."