Babies stop taking naps “when their brains are ready,” the study found

Young children take naps when their brains are ready rather than at a certain age, experts said, as they urged parents to get their kids to sleep.

It is already known that naps play a key role in brain development and memory retention, but when and why naps are baffled researchers.

A new study, led by Professor Rebecca Spencer, of the University of Massachusetts Amherst in the United States, sought to find out why some four- or five-year-olds still love a daily nap while other three-year-olds have stopped.

In the new paper, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Professor Spencer and co-author Tracy Riggins, of the University of Maryland, said their results showed a “relationship between nap transitions and underlying memory and brain development “.

Professor Spencer added: “When young children take naps, they consolidate emotional and declarative memories, so you wonder, when this is such an important time for learning, why should they give up napping if napping helps learning. ? Why not keep taking a nap? “

They looked at the hippocampus, the part of the brain that plays an important role in learning and memory.

Their previous work showed a difference in hippocampal development for babies who sleep and those who have stopped.

They say that when young children have an immature hippocampus, it reaches a limit of memories that can be stored without being forgotten, triggering the need for sleep.

Napping then allows memories to move into the cerebral cortex, freeing up space for additional information to be stored in the hippocampus.

Professor Spencer said: “When the hippocampus is inefficient, it’s like having a small bucket: your bucket will fill faster and overflow, and some memories will spill over and be forgotten.

“This is what we think happens with babies who are still taking a nap. Their hippocampus is less mature and they need to empty that bucket more frequently. “

As the hippocampus is more developed, babies may move away from napping because their hippocampus has matured to the point that their “bucket” won’t overflow.

The suggestion is that they are able to hold onto memories until the end of the day, when nighttime sleep can do its job by moving memories into the cerebral cortex.

Professor Spencer said mounting evidence suggests it is important for all young children to have the opportunity to take a nap.

“Some of them still need it; others may not need it, but if they take it, we know it will benefit their learning and we know that learning is what underlies early education, ”she said.

Professor Spencer said more studies are now needed to follow the children over time.

Extra scientific evidence “would help parents and providers understand that nap transitions cannot be determined by age and the opportunity to nap should be protected for those who need it,” he said.

Forcing children to stop napping “could lead to suboptimal learning and memory,” he added.

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