Study shows naps prime young ones for learning

| Monday, Oct. 14, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Kari Redman has a formula for a smooth day with young children: Let them take their naps.

The Mt. Lebanon resident knows from experience with her toddler son, Wyatt, 3. She also directs the Tender Care Learning Center in Green Tree, where preschoolers get naps for 2 hours a day.

“When (Wyatt) gets a nap during the day, we have a much more productive and happy evening, we can go to dinner as a family, and we can actually make it to a restaurant,” Redman, 37, says. “Sometimes on the weekends, he gets so busy, and he misses (a nap), and I kick myself.”

And at work, children who get a nice nap are nicer to their peers, solve problems better and just seem happier and sharper, she says.

Adults also get a much-needed break when young children nap. So, who would want to skip this part of the day? Though preschools get pressure to eliminate naps in order to add to the learning curriculum, kids that age need naps and benefit greatly from them, according to a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study found that kids who took afternoon naps, averaging a little more than an hour, performed tasks better on that day and the next day, compared to napless kids.

The study's lead researcher — Rebecca Spencer, associate professor of psychology at University of Massachusetts at Amherst — and her team followed 40 children, ages 3 to 5 12, from six western Massachusetts preschools. Though the length of naptimes at full-day child care centers varied greatly, the average naptime with the study kids was 70 minutes. The researchers taught the kids a task, remembering where pictures were located on a grid. The kids played the game without a nap, and again after a nap, repeating the next day. Though researchers didn't see much difference right after the nap, later in the afternoon and the next day, the nappers recalled 10 percent more of the picture locations.

“What's important to note is that these were the same kids,” says Spencer, who specializes in the psychology of sleep. “One week, we went in and had the child nap. One week, we had the same child stay awake. It's not that you have kids that habitually nap versus kids who don't nap.”

Anecdotally, many parents will tell you that their toddler is cranky because he or she is due for a nap — and much of the time, that is indeed just what the child needs, says Dr. Sangeeta Chakravorty, a pediatric sleep specialist with Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC in Lawrenceville.

“I completely agree,” Chakravorty says about the study findings. Napping has “physiological roots ... and it's necessary.”

“It's been part of human life for a very long time,” she says.

Napping is good for adults, too, and some countries promote afternoon siesta time, Chakravorty says. (An afternoon break from our jobs in America? We wish.)

“We all have a normal dip in our circadian rhythm in the afternoon ... directed by our bodies and hormones,” she says. “That's a reason why this nap is so important, so refreshing and necessary.”

Kids who do not nap are more likely to become cranky, and experience disrupted sleep at night, Chakravorty says. Likewise, the study found that nonnappers could not make up for sleep deficits overnight.

Napless, overly tired children can become grumpy, emotionally disregulated and mischievous, Spencer says. Or, fatigued children actually can become wired and giddy, she says.

Stephanie Phillips, director of the Tender Care Learning Center in New Kensington, says that the center's nap times are good for the children.

“Sleep is necessary for healthy growth and development,” she says. “We feel much of the day is spent with hands-on learning, so (kids) also need quiet parts of the day to kind of regroup and build back up.”

Just like adults, children are different: Some need more sleep than others, and some sleep more deeply than others during naps. But even kids who don't fall all the way asleep can enjoy some rest and down time, Phillips says.

The kids bring their own mats and blankets, and often stuffed animals, for their two-hour naps sessions.

“It does make the afternoon go better for some children,” she says.

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