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UMass neuroscientist receives grant to study whether a nap a day helps preschoolers

Should preschoolers really be encouraged to nap every day? That’s the question a neuroscientist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst has been analyzing for the past five years.

Now, Rebecca Spencer has been awarded a grant of $2.64 million to continue her research into the benefits of napping for preschoolers, the university said in a statement Wednesday.

Spencer said so far, she and her team discovered naps contain deep, rapid eye movement (also known as REM) sleep, and thus are beneficial to preschoolers. For instance, napping helps them perform tasks associated with memorization, such as tying their shoes.

“There is rich sleep in these naps and it is important sleep, the kind that can convey a benefit to various cognitive functions,” she said in the statement. “It’s important to declarative learning, the kind that you need to absorb educational materials, and it helps with memory needed to learn movement sequences.”

Spencer said the next step, made possible by the grant from the National Institutes of Health, is to test whether mid-day napping helps children process emotions.


“It’s not known at present whether naps confer a benefit to emotional learning and processing,” she said in the statement.

Even so, Spencer said there is an observable correlation between a child’s sleeping habits and his or her success understanding and processing emotions.

Teachers and parents reported that tired children are more emotional and react more erratically to emotional situations, Spencer said.

“Our visual of a nap-less preschooler is that they’re grumpy or giddy or emotionally unregulated,” she said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

Mid-day naps allow children to process and consolidate the emotions they feel in the morning, giving them a clean slate to tackle the emotional challenges they face in the afternoon, Spencer hypothesized.

Her previous research showed that sleep allows young adults to better cope with emotional stress, but the same concept has yet to be explored in children.


Spencer and her team will also use the grant money to expand their research into a laboratory setting, allowing them to monitor preschoolers’s sleep cycles more carefully by using electrodes.

Spencer said she’s conducted her research in classrooms, monitoring nap times and asking parents to fill out questionaires about their child’s sleep schedule.

She said she hopes her work will provide guidance to parents and educators of toddlers who are unsure about their school’s napping policies, which are often taken for granted.

“With the push for preschools to be publicly funded and more accessible to a wider population, some people have begun to ask whether kids should be spending their valuable school time sleeping,” she said. “We think the answer is yes, naps seem to be important.”

Alyssa Meyers can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ameyers_.