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Did you know your brain is as active when you’re asleep as when you’re awake?

The whole point of sleep, scientists now believe, is not to rest your head but to pause everything else your body is doing so your brain can get to work. It’s like a store-closing at 10 pm. It’s not that the entire Target goes dark but just that need to interact with customers and makes sales is stopped. In the wee hours of the night is when floors are mopped, shelves are dusted, and stock in replenished and rearranged.

So it is with your brain – and with your child’s brain. During sleep, memories are solidified and the learning that happened during the day is incorporated. All those synaptic connections that make a person smarter and more capable link up during sleep.

And not just during sleep at night. Sleep during the day has the same brain-enhancing effect. Children are smarter after a nap.

Researchers Rebecca Gomez and Susanne Diekelmann recently concluded several studies that demonstrate this fact. In one study, year-old babies who were playing heard a voice over a loudspeaker talking in a made-up language. After this training period, some of the babies napped and some stayed awake. The babies who napped were able, after they awoke, to recognize grammatic elements of the new language and even apply them to new sentences (this was tested by babies’ reaction to “correct” and “incorrect” uses of the language heard through headphones). But the babies who’d stayed awake could not.

In a similar language study with preschoolers the same effect was found. Recalling new words was easier for kids who had taken a nap after hearing new words in conversation than it was for kids who had not napped. While preschoolers, with more mature brains than babies’, were not able to generalize pre-nap learning to new situations as the infants could, they were more able after a nap to remember generalizations learned before a nap. For example, they were more able to recognize that the letter A in different fonts is the same letter every time.

The take-away message is obvious: make sure your small children take their naps.

  1. Naptime should be sacred. Try very hard to keep to a consistent nap schedule, which makes it easier for children to fall asleep easily. Keep noise and other interruptions to a minimum during naptime.
  2. Don’t let your child give up naps too soon. It’s common for even toddlers to appear to have “outgrown” their naps but this isn’t true. Other research of Gomez and Diekelmann has shown that even children who nap only infrequently still learn best on their “nap days.”
  3. Notice that “quiet time” doesn’t replace a nap, from the brain’s perspective. To connect up new learning, the brain needs a complete shutdown of activity. Quiet time may be refreshing and make a good break in the day, but it’s not the same.
  4. As children do outgrow their naps, be certain they get plenty of sleep at night. Small children need 12 to 14 hours of sleep every night. Get them to bed in plenty of time to sleep all they need before it’s time to wake up.

By the way, the value of sleep continues for adults. The phrase, “Let me sleep on it,” has roots in fact: learning and memory formation happen during sleep so that we’re all smarter when we wake up.

To be smarter, take a nap. Nap when your children do!



© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.