Naps. The Most Important Part of a Child’s Day at School?

A published study by the National Academy of Sciences provides evidence that daytime sleep is critical for effective learning in young children http://www.pnas.org/content/110/43/17267. The big take-away from the study is that the researchers “show evidence that classroom naps support learning in preschool children by enhancing memories acquired earlier in the day compared with equivalent intervals spent awake. This nap benefit is greatest for children who nap habitually, regardless of age. Performance losses when nap-deprived are not recovered during subsequent overnight sleep. Physiological recordings of naps support a role of sleep spindles in memory performance. These results suggest that distributed [italics mine] sleep is critical in early learning; when short-term memory stores are limited, memory consolidation must take place frequently.

What are Sleep Spindles?

“Sleep spindles” are short bursts of brain activity that have been associated with memory processing. Because the preschool-aged brain is still under construction, acquiring new information on a constant basis, the need for daytime sleep is not solely because the child is physically tired. The need for daytime sleep allows the preschooler time in slow-wave brain pattern that in turn improves their ability to remember the newly acquired information. Nap restriction during the preschool years has the potential to impede developmental progress.

Thinking of the whole child, the research also indicates that the more children sleep; that is, a daytime nap and at night, the less likely they are to have a significant behavior disorder as determined by a licensed physician or psychologist. Not surprising. Parents and teachers well know that a well-rested child exhibits better self-control, thinks more clearly, employs more patience and copes better with setbacks and disappointments. In other words, she is just more pleasant to be around!

Quality school environments with dedicated early childhood professionals (aka preschool teachers) provide stimulating and age-appropriate challenges every single school day. A school day for a child this age can be ten hours.  Along with engaging play environments and ample choices of activities, (having several choices can be a point of stress for some), children must also interface with each other; those with whom they get along and those with whom they do not. These social interactions require significant effort from a child. Play and interfacing takes place all day, five days a week. There is no quiet bedroom or bathroom to retreat to when a child needs to socially decompress.  Quiet space is a difficult element to create in a childcare setting.  At school the children are in ongoing rigorous training to become healthy, decent, contributing future adults. As we know, training is exhausting work; the kind of work that demands adequate recovery time. This is why many children who do not nap at home, do nap at school.

What about the child who is outgrowing a nap or has outgrown a nap altogether?

When a child’s nap begins to naturally decrease in length of time, it may be a marker that the brain is maturing in its cognitive development. This is not to say that the child is “too smart to nap anymore” but rather he or she has reached a developmental milestone, just as babies grow out of two naps a day, down to one nap a day. However, even for the one who has outgrown napping, adequate rest and relaxation is beneficial and optimal for growth and mental health. It is also a state licensing requirement in a full day program. “What is the benefit to my child just laying there, wide awake when he could be doing something more constructive?”

Along with recovering from the active morning discussed above, the wakeful but resting child has perhaps the most valuable time of day; the time to be alone with his own thoughts. Uninterrupted. To daydream, problem-solve, plan, remember things, review the conflict he had with his friend and ask himself about it, retell stories, create ideas that have never been created before. L. Frank Baum had this thought about imagination:

“Imagination has brought mankind through the Dark Ages to its present state of civilization. Imagination led Columbus to discover America. Imagination led Franklin to discover electricity. Imagination has given us the steam engine, the telephone, the talking-machine and the automobile, for these things had to be dreamed of before they became realities. So I believe that dreams—day dreams, you know, with your eyes wide open and your brain-machinery whizzing—are likely to lead to the betterment of the world. The imaginative child will become the imaginative man or woman most apt to create, to invent, and therefore to foster civilization.”

“So that’s all well and good and uplifting and all but my child who sleeps too much in the day won’t go to sleep at night when I need him to”. A nightly frustration shared with your friends and neighbors. This frustration requires some looking into, asking yourself what events and activities are leading up to bedtime. Being on-the-go and screen-viewing just prior to bed is known to create or aggravate poor sleep or delay its onset. “Blue screen” in the room is a well-known deterrent to good sleep. Conversely, a bath, low-set lights and quiet time with a loved one puts a child on a track to winding down enough to slow the mind and body. If necessary, YouTube has many progressive relaxation recordings for children that could be helpful–if used only for listening, not watching.

“Great. None of that works!” Then your child will go to sleep when he goes to sleep. After you have provided a devoted lead-up to bedtime and your child is just not having it, that’s on him, not you. As parent, the leader in the household, you are well within reason to tell your child directly and firmly with great love and soothing, that your evening together is over. She stays awake, keeping herself occupied before she’s tired enough to fall asleep on her own. You are not the entertainment committee and neither are the devices. The conditions are that she use a quiet voice in her room, lights out (aside from any kind of nightlight as needed).

What are your thoughts about naps and bedtime? Have you found a routine that works in your family that your neighbors might benefit from? How do you handle your young night owlets? What challenges do you deal with?

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