If Your Baby Or Toddler Naps Little And Often, Researchers Want You To Do This

A new study looked at what nap times reveal about a child’s brain development.
Nazar Rybak via Getty Images

When it comes to babies and toddlers, it’s safe to say there’s no rulebook as far as sleep is concerned.

While there’s no shortage of books out there telling parents how much their children should be sleeping at various stages in their development, the reality is that no two babies are the same so they’ll have very different sleep needs.

And, when they reach toddlerhood, well... good luck to you as you spend hours each evening trying to get them down to sleep. (Sorry, I might be projecting.)

But does it actually mean something when an infant naps little and often?

Well, a new study suggests it might. Some children are more efficient at consolidating information during sleep, so they nap less frequently, the research found.

Conversely, University of East Anglia researchers found that it’s usually the case that frequent cat-nappers tend to have fewer words and poorer cognitive skills than their peers.

The takeaway? The research team said these children should be allowed to nap as frequently and for as long as they need.

For the study, researchers analysed 463 infants aged between eight months and three years during lockdown in 2020.

Parents were surveyed about their children’s sleep patterns, their ability to focus on a task, keep information in their memory, and the number of words that they understood and could say.

They also asked parents about their socio-economic status – including their postcode, income, and education - and about the amount of screen time and outdoors activities their child engaged in.

As the research took place during lockdown, it allowed researchers to study children’s intrinsic sleep needs because they weren’t at daycare, which is where they tend to sleep less.

They found the structure of daytime sleep is an indicator of cognitive development.

Lead researcher Dr Teodora Gliga said: “There is a lot of parental anxiety around sleep. Parents worry that their kids don’t nap as much as expected for their age – or nap too frequently and for too long.

“But our research shows that how frequently a child naps reflects their individual cognitive need. Some are more efficient at consolidating information during sleep, so they nap less frequently.

“Children with smaller vocabularies or a lower score in a measure of executive function, nap more frequently.

“Young children will naturally nap for as long as they need and they should be allowed to do just that.”

Parents of frequent cat-nappers needn’t worry though.

The findings suggest that “children have different sleep needs – some children may drop naps earlier because they don’t need them anymore,” said Dr Gliga, and that “others may still need to nap past three years of age” – and that’s OK.