Funded by an NIH grant, the research aims to establish the scientific foundations for the impact of napping on the cognitive and memory development of infants and preschoolers.

Summary: A University of Massachusetts Amherst sleep scientist, Rebecca Spencer, has launched two NIH-funded studies with $6.7 million to explore the role of napping on the brain development of infants and preschoolers. Collaborating with specialists from the University of Maryland, the research aims to establish scientific evidence on how naps influence memory and brain structure, particularly in the hippocampus. The findings will help shape nap policies and enhance the understanding of developmental needs for both neurotypical and neurodiverse children. The studies involve observing children’s brain activity, memory, and nap habits over time.

Key Takeaways: 

  • The research is supported by $6.7 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health and involves collaboration between Rebecca Spencer of UMass Amherst and specialists from the University of Maryland, focusing on the developmental impact of napping in young children.
  • The studies aim to track the brain development of infants and preschoolers over time to determine the role of napping in early life, specifically looking at changes in the hippocampus and how these relate to memory and cognitive development.
  • The findings from these studies are expected to inform nap policies for preschool and pre-kindergarten settings and provide insights for parents and teachers of both neurotypical and neurodiverse children, enhancing understanding of sleep’s role in early childhood development.

A University of Massachusetts Amherst sleep scientist, funded with $6.7 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has launched two studies that will track over time the brain development of infants and preschoolers to confirm the role of napping in early life and identify the bioregulatory mechanisms involved.

Rebecca Spencer, PhD, a professor of psychological and brain sciences who is well-known for her research into napping, is testing her theories about what’s happening in the hippocampus—the short-term memory area of the brain—as babies and young children undergo nap transitions.

Unveiling the Science of Sleep

This new research is expected to become the gold standard of scientific evidence that emphasizes the importance of healthy sleep for young children as their brains develop. The findings will help inform nap policies for preschool and pre-kindergarten and be useful to teachers and parents of both neurotypical and neurodiverse children.

“The work we’ve been doing has always pointed to this interaction of sleep and brain development,” says Spencer, who carries out research in her Somneurolab at UMass Amherst, in a release. “We think that kids get ready to transition out of naps when the brain is big enough to hold all the information of the day until night-time sleep.”

Longitudinal Insights into Brain Development

The study involving preschoolers is a collaboration between Spencer at UMass Amherst; Tracy Riggins, PhD, a developmental psychologist specializing in memory development at the University of Maryland; and Gregory Hancock, PhD, a University of Maryland professor of human development and quantitative methodology. 

Previous research by Spencer and Riggins showed differences in the hippocampus of kids who nap compared to those who have transitioned out of naps.

“So far, we’ve used cross-sectional approaches,” says Spencer, referring to research that analyzes data at one point in time, as opposed to longitudinal studies that involve repeated observation over time, in a release. “We really need to show longitudinally within a child that the point when they transition out of naps is predicted by a transition in the development of their hippocampus.” 

The hippocampus is the short-term location for memories before they move to the cortex for long-term storage. Naps allow children with an immature hippocampus to process memories. Young children give up their afternoon nap, not based on their age, but their brain development, Spencer hypothesizes.

The Critical Role of Naps

“Naps are beneficial to everybody. Naps protect memory for everybody, no matter what age. Kids who are habitual nappers really need the nap. If they don’t nap, they get catastrophic forgetting. That’s the difference between habitual and non-habitual nappers—not how good is the nap, but how bad is staying awake,” Spencer says in a release.

Riggins adds in a release, “In the end, being able to tell parents that those little deviations from routine that keep their children from napping might not have these huge implications for a neurotypical child in the long run would be great. And, the more we know about how the brain works in a typically developing child during this nap transition, the more we will be able to know about where we could possibly intervene to help neurodiverse children–like children with autism and ADHD, whose sleep patterns tend to be disrupted–since we will have some sort of scientific basis.”

Research fellow Emma Frey fits Miles, 4, with an electrode cap to record his brain activity during a nap in the Somneurolab. Photo credit: University of Massachusetts Amherst 

The research team is recruiting 180 children, ages 3 to 5 years. The researchers will track their brain development, memory performance, and nap status over the course of one year at three checkpoints. During the first and second sessions, the children will wear activity-tracking watches and EEG equipment to record naps and overnight sleep. They will also play memory games before and after naps. The children will undergo an MRI brain scan during the third session. 

Monica and David Dumlao, of Chicopee, Mass, signed up their son Miles, 4, for the preschool study after watching the Netflix documentary series “Babies,” which featured Spencer in the episode about sleep. “We like learning about the neuroscience behind brain development,” Monica Dumlao said at a recent study session in Spencer’s lab. “We thought this was a good opportunity to contribute to the science about the importance of naps.” 

Three-Part Infant Study

In the three-part infant study on nap transitions and memory, Spencer is studying the period before and after babies transition from two naps–one in the morning and one in the afternoon–to one richer afternoon nap. She is recruiting 140 infants 7 to 9 months old. The babies will play a memory game before and after their naps. Their brain activity will be recorded during their naps using a noninvasive electrode cap. The sessions will take place at 9, 12 and 15 months.

“We think as they are getting ready to drop the morning nap, staying awake in that morning interval will be less and less damaging to their memory,” Spencer says in a release. “But we don’t think that’s going to happen with the afternoon nap at this age. We think the afternoon nap stays super important.”

Parents interested in participating in the preschool sleep study are invited to fill out a screening form here; the screening form for the infant nap study is available here.

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