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Sleep (and Learn) like a Baby

by Karen Peifer

We’ve all heard the expression “sleeping like a baby” and know, as adults, good sleep means being well rested and able to think more clearly. But, a new study by English and German researchers shows that napping is tied to babies’ learning, as well.

According to the University of Sheffield website, napping helps infants develop their memory, integrate new skills and retain new behaviors they have learned.

In the study – recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) – babies less than a year old were shown how to remove and manipulate a mitten from a hand puppet, and then were given the chance to reproduce those actions after four and 24 hours. Researchers then compared the behavior of babies who napped at least 30 minutes during the day and those who did not. The infants who had napped remembered the behavior, and those who had not dozed during the day did not. Even after a day had passed, the napping infants recalled the actions better.

The amount of nap time also was important in the study. The babies who napped longer than 30 minutes had better recall. Babies who napped after a learning activity remembered what they learned better than those who did not nap.

What does this mean for parents and early educators? For starters, it defies the notion that sleepy babies are winding down and not learning. It also reminds us that those naptime and bedtime rituals like holding, playing with, singing to and especially reading to young kids can be not just beneficial, but crucial to their learning.

The study also suggests that adjusting the napping schedule to suit the day’s activities, instead of always sticking to a sleep schedule, may give young children the time they need to process what they have learned.

Next the researchers will look at, not just how much young children remember, but the quality of what they remember and how they use that information later on.

Karen PeiferIn the meantime, parents and caregivers can use this knowledge to remember that there’s never a bad time to share quality experiences with babies. Those quieter times before naps can be some of the lessons they will remember most!

Karen Peifer is Sr. Director of Children’s Health at First Things First. She can be reached at kpeifer@azftf.gov .

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