Young child’s brain, not age, determines nap transitions

University of Massachusetts Amherst

Why do some 4- and 5-year-olds still nap like clockwork every afternoon, while other preschoolers start giving up habitual napping at age 3?

It’s a question many parents no doubt ponder and one that a University of Massachusetts Amherst sleep scientist has been considering for years. Now, in a paper published Monday, Oct. 24, in a special sleep issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, lead author Rebecca Spencer describes a new theory about why and when young children transition out of naps. It’s not about age as much as the brain.

“This overarching theory is based on data that we’ve published over the past couple of years; it’s about putting the pieces together,” says Spencer, professor of psychological and brain sciences, who collaborated with co-author Tracy Riggins, a University of Maryland child psychologist specializing in memory development. “Collectively, we provide support for a relation between nap transitions and underlying memory and brain development. We’re saying this is a critical time of development in the brain and sleep has something to do with it.”

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. Spencer notes that it may seem counterintuitive for young kids to abandon habitual naps. “When little kids are napping, they consolidate emotional and declarative memories, 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?”

Previous research by Spencer and Riggins showed “there’s a difference in the development of the hippocampus for kids who nap and those who have transitioned out of naps,” Spencer says.

The hippocampus is the short-term location for memories before they move to long-term storage in the cortex. “The naps are serving the job of processing memories,” Spencer explains. When young children’s immature hippocampus reaches its limit of memories that can be stored without “interference,” or forgetting, kids experience heightened “sleep pressure.” Researchers look at EEG slow-wave activity, a neurobiological marker in the brain waves recorded during sleep, to measure the buildup of homeostatic sleep pressure.

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