Napping helps infants to develop their memory and retain new behaviours they have learnt, a new study from the University of Sheffield has revealed.
Babies devote the majority of their time to sleeping, but until now very little was known about the links between sleep and the unprecedented levels of growth and development that take place during their first year of life.
In the first study of its kind, researchers from the University of Sheffield and Ruhr University Bochum in Germany explored whether daytime sleep after learning helped babies to remember new behaviour.
The study focused on 216 healthy six to 12 month-old infants and tested their ability to recall newly learned skills.
They were shown how to remove and manipulate a mitten from a hand puppet and were given the opportunity to reproduce these actions after delays of four and 24 hours.
Infants who did not nap after learning were compared with age-matched infants who napped for at least 30 minutes within four hours of learning the target actions.
“Our results show that activities occurring just before infants have a nap can be particularly valuable and well-remembered”
The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed that only infants who had napped after the learning activity remembered the target actions whilst those who had not napped showed no evidence of remembering the new information and behaviour.
After a 24 hour delay children in the napping group also exhibited significantly better recall compared with infants in the no-nap group.
Study author Dr Jane Herbert, from Sheffield’s department of psychology, said: “Until now people have presumed that the best time for infants to learn is when they are wide-awake, rather than when they are starting to feel tired.
“But our results show that activities occurring just before infants have a nap can be particularly valuable and well-remembered,” she said.
The study also suggests that allowing flexible napping schedules in response to different daily schedules could help ensure optimal learning conditions for infants.
Naps of shorter than 30 minutes were shown not to provide sufficient time for infants to consolidate their knowledge such that it could be retained over the long term.
“Parents receive lots of advice about what they should and shouldn’t do with their baby’s sleep schedule,” said Dr Herbert.
“This study however examined learning opportunities around naturally occurring naps and shows just how valuable activities like reading books with young children just before they go down to sleep can be,” she added.
The research group will now look at whether sleep not only enhances the quantity of infants’ memory, for example how much is remembered, but also the quality of memory such as how the recollections are used.