Sleep affects infant memoryNumerous studies have shown that sleep plays a major role in memory, but relatively little is known about the relationship between sleep and learning in early childhood. Researchers from the University of Sheffield and from Ruhr University in Bochum, Germany investigated how daytime sleep affects memory in infants. The study demonstrated that children who sleep within a few hours after learning a new task are better able to remember what they learned. The findings contradict some “common sense” beliefs about the best time for learning.

For the study, 216 healthy infants aged 6 to 12 months learned a new task. The infants watched a demonstration of task: removing and manipulating a mitten from a hand puppet. The infants then had the opportunity to independently perform the task 4 and 24 hours later. The researchers compared infants who did not nap after the demonstration to age-matched infants who napped for at least 30 minutes within four hours of the demonstration.

The infants who napped after the demonstration exhibited improved declarative memory consolidation. Declarative memory refers to the ability to retain facts, events, and knowledge. The infants who napped after the demonstration remembered how to manipulate the mitten, but infants who did not nap showed no evidence of learning the task. Twenty-four hours after the demonstration, the infants who napped exhibited significantly better recall than their non-napping peers. The results also showed that napping for fewer than 30 minutes did not help infants consolidate memory in the long term.

The findings contradict the assumption that infants learn best when they are wide-awake. Researcher Dr. Jane Herbert of the University of Sheffield’s Department of Psychology says of the results, “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 … Our results show that activities occurring just before infants have a nap can be particularly valuable and well-remembered.”

This research is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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