Article image

Children's nap times can tell you about their brain development

Parents often worry about their children’s sleep – contemplating whether they’re getting too little or too much. A research team from the University of East Anglia (UEA) has recently revealed insights that may alleviate some parental anxieties about their children’s nap times. 

The study offers an intriguing look into the world of infant sleep patterns. The findings help to clarify the relationship between sleep and early childhood learning.

Focus of the study

The research was focused on how the frequency and length of naps can mirror a child’s cognitive development and needs.

The results suggest that the frequency of children’s naps reflects their cognitive requirements. In other words, some infants consolidate information more efficiently during sleep, resulting in fewer naps, while others with smaller vocabularies and poorer cognitive skills may need more frequent napping.

No need to worry about nap times

Dr. Teodora Gliga, the lead researcher on the project, stresses that parental anxieties about their child’s sleep patterns may be misplaced. 

“Parents worry that their kids don’t nap as much as expected for their age, or nap too frequently and for too long, but our research shows that how frequently a child naps reflects their individual cognitive need. Some are more efficient at consolidating information during sleep, so they nap less frequently.”

Dr. Gliga also notes a correlation between cognitive function and nap frequency: “Children with smaller vocabularies or a lower score in a measure of executive function, nap more frequently.” 

She urges parents not to fret about this, but rather to allow the natural course to take its shape. “Young children will naturally nap for as long as they need and they should be allowed to do just that.”

How the research was conducted 

The study observed the sleep habits of 463 infants aged between eight months and three years during the lockdown in 2020. 

Parents were surveyed regarding their children’s sleep patterns, their ability to focus on a task, keep information in their memory, and their linguistic capacity. 

The survey also took into account the socio-economic status of the families, gathering data about their postcode, income, and education level. Furthermore, the experts considered the amount of screen time and outdoor activities the child was exposed to.

“Lockdown gave us an opportunity to study children’s intrinsic sleep needs because when children are in childcare, they rarely nap as much as they need to,” said Dr. Gliga. “Because nurseries were closed, it meant less disturbance to the children’s natural sleep patterns. None of the children taking part were attending day care.”

Remarkable insights

“What we found is that the structure of daytime sleep is an indicator of cognitive development. Infants with more frequent but shorter naps than expected for their age had smaller vocabularies, and worse cognitive function.”

“We also found that this negative association between vocabulary and frequency of naps was stronger in older children.”

Dr. Gliga noted that while the majority of parents said that their child’s sleep was unaffected by lockdown, parents from lower socio-economic backgrounds were more likely to report a worsening in sleep.

“Screen time increased during lockdown and outdoor activities decreased but these did not explain differences in children’s sleep,” said Dr. Gliga.

Children need their natural nap times

“Previous work suggested that caregivers should encourage frequent naps, in pre-school children. Our findings suggest that children have different sleep needs – some children may drop naps earlier because they don’t need them anymore. Others may still need to nap past three years of age.”

“In the UK, preschools enrolling three to five-year-olds have no provisions for napping. Caregivers should use a child’s mental age and not chronological age to ascertain a child’s sleep needs,” said Dr. Gliga.

The study sheds a new light on the importance of respecting children’s natural sleep patterns, underlining that the variance in nap times may be less about a problem and more about an individual’s developmental needs.

The findings could have substantial implications for understanding infant development and may serve to guide future research in this area. 

The UEA team collaborated with several other universities, including the University of Oxford, Oxford Brookes University, the University of Leeds, and the University of Warwick. Funding was granted by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

The research is published in the journal JCPP Advances.


Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and

News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day