The Brain, Not Age, Determines When Kids Stop Napping

If you have more than one child, you may wonder why their sleeping habits were so different at the same age. Perhaps one preschooler napped for two hours every day until kindergarten while the other was done with daily naps long before their fourth birthday. How could two kids need such different amounts of sleep at the same age? Sleep experts may have an answer.

The Theory on Naps

Sleep scientists at the University of Massachusetts Amherst wanted to better understand when and why young children transition out of naps. After all, sleep helps process and consolidate memories, providing a vital service to the brain. In fact, some scientists describe the need to nap as “sleep pressure;” that is, when the immature hippocampus reaches its storage capacity of sorts and looks to move memories to the cortex to free up room for new information in the hippocampus. This seems to be supported by the differences in hippocampal volume for habitually and nonhabitually napping children.

As co-lead author of the published paper, UMass Amherst Assistant Professor of Psychology Dr. Rebecca Spencer, explains, “When the hippocampus is inefficient, it’s like having a small bucket. Your bucket is going to fill up faster and overflow, and some memories will spill out and be forgotten. That’s what we think happens with the kids that are still napping.”

But as the hippocampus matures, there’s less of a risk of the “bucket” overflowing. Young children with a more developed hippocampus can hold memories throughout the day until overnight sleep when it processes information and moves it to the cortex.

Future Research

The paper’s authors would like to see their theory tested in longitudinal research studies in order to look at the long-term assessments of sleep physiology, structural and functional development, and memory changes across nap transitions. As Spencer suggests, some sort of cognitive measure of memory would help parents know if their child still needs regular naps.

Until then, parents are discouraged from forcing a transition away from napping, which could be detrimental to their young child’s learning and memory.

You can read more about “Contributions of memory and brain development to the bioregulation of naps and nap transitions in early childhood” in the October 24, 2022 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).


Wendy Burt-Thomas writes about the brain, mental health and parenting.

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