Babies and toddlers need extra sleep to support their rapidly growing minds and bodies. To get the necessary amount of hours, though, they need to nap in addition to their nighttime sleep. A recent study1 set out to see just how effective naps could be in young children, specifically looking at whether a daytime nap improved word learning in 16-month-olds.
Along with covering the details of the study and what the researchers found, we’ll share tips on how to help your toddler sleep better and answer other common questions about children and napping.
What the Research Says
The team of researchers randomly assigned 34 typically developing children to either a nap or no nap group. The groups were then taught two novel object word pairs, meaning that they were shown a picture of an object that was new to them and told the name of the object.1
After both groups learned the object and its name, the researchers used an intermodal preferential-looking task2 to test their initial performance. This is a method that measures infants’ language comprehension by tracking their eye movements after they are shown two images side-by-side.2
In the case of the word-learning study, it was thought that the children would look longer at the object if they comprehended what it was and this was measured with an automatic eye-tracker. A second test was administered after a two-hour delay in which one group took a nap and the other stayed awake. Those who napped were shown to have better comprehension once they woke up, while the participants who stayed awake didn’t show any changes in their performance.1
The researchers stated that the results of their study indicated that daytime napping promotes word learning.1
Why Is This Study Important?
The human brain experiences periodic sleep spindles, which are “bursts of brain activity during sleep3.” These sleep spindles are associated with memory retention4, and the more of them that you have, the better you will be at remembering new information.
As mentioned, the results of this study suggest that the time asleep during naps could improve word learning in toddlers, and a child’s ability to learn new words before they start kindergarten is a predictor of later academic success5.
How to Improve Your Toddler’s Napping
Some toddlers enjoy an afternoon nap while others resist them. If your toddler is less than thrilled about their nap time, here are some ways to improve their experience.
Stick to a schedule – Although it may not always be possible due to daytime activities and appointments, try to have your toddler nap at the same time every day. If they nap at daycare, try to schedule home naps for the same time period(s).
Create a calming routine – We often have to give toddlers time to wind down from their activities to allow them to transition to nap time. Implement a calming routine to prepare them for their nap. This might include coloring or reading a story to them.
Limit screen time – The blue light that emanates from screen devices like cell phones and tablets can suppress melatonin production6. Melatonin is a hormone that makes us feel sleepy, and if a toddler spends too much time on a phone or tablet, they will probably have a harder time falling asleep.
Expend their energy – If your toddler doesn’t have an opportunity to burn off their energy, they will have a hard time relaxing at nap time. When possible, get outside for a physical activity. On bad weather days, creative activities such as puzzles and building blocks as these can provide mental stimulation and allow them to release some energy.
Create an environment conducive to sleeping – Provide your toddler with a dark, quiet, and cool room with comfortable bedding. You can also give them their favorite blanket or stuffed animal for extra comfort.
Frequently Asked Questions about Toddlers and Napping
Why are naps important for my baby?
Sleep helps babies in multiple ways. Sleep aids a child’s physical well-being and mental development. It helps them learn and retain information more easily, and it can decrease their irritability and anxiety.
When should my child stop napping?
This will be largely dependent on your child’s needs as each kid is different. Most children will stop napping between the ages of 3-57, and if your child is happy and engaged during the afternoon, they are likely ready to give up their naps.
How do I know that my child is getting enough sleep?
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine’s8 recommendations for sleep in babies and children include a range for each age group, and some kids need more or less sleep than others. If you’re unsure if your child is getting enough sleep, look to see if they act sleepy during the day or are showing signs of irritability or aggression. Additionally, if your child is having trouble concentrating, it may be a sign that they are not well-rested.
Sosha Lewis is a staff writer for Sleep Advisor. Lewis is happy that she is able to combine her love of sleep with her love of writing.
- Horváth, Klára., et al. Napping facilitates word learning in early lexical development”. Journal of Sleep Research. 2015.
- Golinkoff, Roberta Michnick., et al. “Twenty-Five Years Using the Intermodal Preferential Looking Paradigm to Study Language Acquisition: What Have We Learned?”. Association for Psychological Science. 2013.
- Sohn, Rebecca. “Spiky ‘Sleep Spindles’ Linked to Acts of Learning”. Scientific American. 2022
- Antony, James W., et al. “Sleep Spindles and Memory Reprocessing”. National Library of Medicine. 2018.
- Pino Escobar, Gloria., et al. “Understanding preschoolers’ word learning success in different scenarios: disambiguation meets statistical learning and eBook reading”. National Library of Medicine. 2024.
- “Blue light has a dark side”. Harvard Medical School. 2020.
- McCarthy, Claire. “Naps: Make the most of them and know when to stop them”. Harvard Medical School. 2021.
- Paruthi MD, Shalini., et al. “Recommended Amount of Sleep for Pediatric Populations:
- A Consensus Statement of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine”. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine. 2016.