Parents are prone to worry about their children getting either too little or too much sleep, but a new study reveals that some children are more efficient at consolidating information during sleep, so they nap less frequently. 

Meanwhile others, usually those with fewer words and poorer cognitive skills, need to nap more frequently. The study is published in JCPP Advances.

The research team, led by the University of East Anglia, says that reducing naps for these children will not improve brain development and that they should be allowed to nap as frequently and for as long as they need.

“There is a lot of parental anxiety around sleep. Parents worry that their kids don’t nap as much as expected for their age—or nap too frequently and for too long,” says lead researcher Teodora Gliga, PhD, in a release. “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. Children with smaller vocabularies or a lower score in a measure of executive function nap more frequently.” 

She adds in the release, “Young children will naturally nap for as long as they need, and they should be allowed to do just that.” 

The research team studied 463 infants aged between 8 months and 3 years during the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020.

Parents were surveyed about their children’s sleep patterns, ability to focus on a task, keep information in their memory, and the number of words they understood and could say. 

They also asked parents about their socio-economic status—including their postcode, income, and education—and about the amount of screen time and outdoor activities their child engaged in. 

“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,” says Gliga in the release. “Because nurseries were closed, it meant less disturbance to the children’s natural sleep patterns. None of the children taking part were attending daycare.” 

According to Gliga, the research team found 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. The researchers also found that this negative association between vocabulary and frequency of naps was stronger in older children.

“While the majority of parents told us that their child’s sleep was unaffected by lockdown, parents from lower socio-economic backgrounds were more likely to report a worsening in sleep,” says Gliga in the release. “Screen time increased during lockdown, and outdoor activities decreased. But these did not explain differences in children’s sleep. Previous work suggested that caregivers should encourage frequent naps in preschool children.”

The findings suggest that children have different sleep needs. Some children may drop naps earlier because they don’t need them anymore, while others may still need to nap past 3 years of age. 

“In the UK, preschools enrolling 3- to 5-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,” she adds in the release.

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