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How Napping May Help Babies Develop Memory

Everyone knows that young infants sleep a lot. For parents, a sleeping baby is a happy baby, providing precious quiet moments for parents to complete household tasks or perhaps catch a few Zs themselves. But, according to a new study at the University of Sheffield, napping may actually help babies develop memory skills and retain behaviors they have already seen or mimicked.

Researchers teamed up with scientists at Rurh University Bochum in Germany, to try to understand how an infant's sleep can affect their development. It turns out that napping can help a child to develop their declarative memory, which assists in retaining events and knowledge. Think of it as studying for a test before bed; researchers have found that students who engage in this study habit retain more of what they have read.

In the study, healthy infants aged six to 12 months were taught to put on a mitten on a cloth puppet. Some in the group were given a 30 minute afternoon nap after learning the skill and some were not. Researchers then tested the children four and 24 hours after learning the skill to see if they could reproduce it. The researchers found that the children who had napped had far more success in retaining the skill, both four and 24 hours after it was learned.

Babies who had not napped, showed little to no recognition of the skill, both four hours and 24 hours after learning it. This points to strong evidence that naps, especially during the daytime, can help infants to gain and retain new information, skills, and behavior at a faster rate than non-napping babies. The fact that the napping children showed strong recognition 24 hours after the initial learning session has researchers convinced that naps are crucial.

This information may encourage parents and caregivers to alter their daily routines. Many infants and young children nap after their lunch time; however, it may be beneficial before and during lunch that teaching occurs. Perhaps working with colors, numbers, or small motor skills at this time will assist the child in retaining the information later. 

"These findings are particularly interesting to both parents and educationalists because they suggest that the optimal time for infants to learn new information is just before they have a sleep," researcher Dr. Jane Herbert said in a statement. "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."

Additionally, researchers noted that the length of time of a nap is also crucial to promoting memory. During this study, it was found that naps less than thirty minutes long were not enough to encourage retention of information. Infants especially need more sleep time to develop their memories, in addition to physical and emotional development. So let your babies sleep as much as they need; you could be assiting in their long-term learning and memory skills down the road.

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