Researchers share new theory about why and when young children transition out of naps
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Researchers share new theory about why and when young children transition out of naps

by Freya Lucas

October 28, 2022

Why is it that some preschoolers still take a nap like clockwork each and every day, while others gave up naps in early toddler years? The question has been on the minds of many parents and early childhood educators for some time, and now scientists have a theory about the answer. 


Professor Rebecca Spencer from the University of Massachusetts has been pondering this question for many years, and recently published a paper sharing her findings in a special sleep issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


The novel theory, which supports the practice of providing the opportunity for all preschoolers and pre-kindergarteners to nap, connects bioregulatory mechanisms underlying nap transitions, focusing on the hippocampus — the memory area of the brain. 


“When little kids are napping, they consolidate emotional and declarative memories,” she explained, “so then you ask yourself, when this is such an important time of learning, why would they transition out of napping if napping is helping learning? Why not just keep napping?”


Napping allows memories to move to the cortex, freeing space for more information to be stored in the hippocampus. Professor Spencer likens the developing hippocampus to a bucket of varying size.


“When the hippocampus is inefficient, it’s like having a small bucket,” she said. “Your bucket is going to fill up faster and overflow, and some memories will spill out and be forgotten. That’s what we think happens with the kids that are still napping. Their hippocampus is less mature, and they need to empty that bucket more frequently.”


When the hippocampus is more developed, children can transition away from taking naps because their hippocampus has matured to a point that their “bucket” will not overflow. They can hold memories until the end of the day, when overnight sleep can process information from the hippocampus to the cortex, the researchers posit.


“This overarching theory is based on data that we’ve published over the past couple of years; it’s about putting the pieces together,” Professor Spencer added. 


The researchers hope their work supports educators and parents to offer all young children the opportunity to nap. 


“Some of them still need it; others may not need it but if they take it, we know that it’s going to benefit their learning, and we know that learning is what underlies early education,” she said. 


To access the findings please see here. Image source;  KURILPA COMMUNITY CHILDCARE CENTRE INC

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