Neuroscientist Rebecca Spencer, PhD, at the University of Massachusetts Amherst recently received a 5-year, $2.64 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to explore, in a series of laboratory and preschool-based studies, whether mid-day napping benefits learning in young children and helps them cope with emotions. Improving early education can enhance child development and school readiness, factors that are known to have lifelong effects on physical and mental health, she notes.

Spencer’s studies will build on her work over the past several years, where she has investigated whether napping in preschools is beneficial. “With the push for preschools to be publicly funded and more accessible to a wider population, some people have begun to ask whether kids should be spending their valuable school time sleeping. We think the answer is yes, naps seem to be important,” she says.

“There is rich sleep in these naps and it is important sleep, the kind that can convey a benefit to various cognitive functions. It’s important to declarative learning, the kind that you need to absorb educational materials, and it helps with memory needed to learn movement sequences. For instance, learning to tie shoes is helped by napping.”

In the work she and colleagues plan, Spencer says she will extend the research to see if napping is beneficial to more tasks, and whether sleep is important for emotion processing. She says, “We do know that naps benefit visuospatial learning, for example, the Memory Game, and motor sequence learning, but it’s not known at present whether naps confer a benefit to emotional learning and processing.”

Further, she notes, “Teachers and parents know that many times napless kids are more emotional, they cope with emotions less well or react more quickly with strong emotion. If someone steals your ball on the playground in the morning or you read a story with sad emotional content, we hypothesize that your emotional memory processing benefits by consolidating that emotional memory in sleep. You then have a ‘clean slate’ on the playground or in the classroom when you’re faced with an emotional challenge after napping. From our own research we know that for young adults, sleep is important for emotional memory consolidation and coping with emotion but it hasn’t been explored in young children.”

The sleep researchers will also extend their preschool classroom-based studies to add sleep laboratory studies. Spencer notes, “In the lab, we can look at mechanisms, which will help to address 2 important questions. One is how long do young children need to nap, and another is what part of the nap is most important, early or late.

Rebecca Spencer, PhD. Credit: UMass Amherst

Rebecca Spencer, PhD. Credit: UMass Amherst

We are always asked whether all young children need to nap, and if not, who needs a nap and who doesn’t. Also, we are asked whether some kids grow out of naps earlier than others. By looking at sleep stages they go through, we can measure that in the lab and not in the preschool setting. There is a beautiful new sleep lab on campus in the Institute for Applied Life Sciences where these studies will be conducted.”

As the sleep expert and her colleagues observe, loss of sleep changes the way people experience and manage emotions. Adults can become “grumpy” with sleep loss, and toddlers show “significantly more negative behaviors and less mature self-regulation skills when faced with an unsolvable puzzle task” if they miss their usual nap.

“Although these studies provide evidence of enhanced emotional regulation following a mid-day nap in early childhood, little is known of the underlying mechanisms through which sleep contributes to more efficient emotion processing in early childhood,” they point out.

Overall, Spencer says she would like to contribute to current knowledge and recommendations on such topics as nap length to parents and to guide nap policy for preschools and teachers.