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Downtime Decisions

NSF, NIH Fund Study of How Childhood Naps Affect Memory

By Chris Carroll

Napping illustration

Illustration by Matt Laumann

Illustration by Matt Laumann

What’s best for a preschooler: a two-hour nap, one hour napping and one hour learning a foreign language, or no midday shuteye and nonstop learning?

While your grandma and most Type A friend might clash on this point, there’s no simple answer, says Tracy Riggins, an associate professor of psychology who studies brain development and memory formation in young children.

Riggins is leading a three-year study aimed at understanding how sleep affects brain development and memory in preschool-age children. Funded by $1 million from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, the study could help form the basis for new formal guidelines for childhood napping.

Previous studies conducted by Rebecca Spencer, a sleep researcher at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and collaborator on the current study, have shown that midday sleep helps young children retain memories. Meanwhile, parents, teachers and caregivers also know that most children grow out of daily naps between ages 3 and 5. What’s lacking is knowledge about where the balance lies, which would help preschools better assess who needs a nap and who doesn’t.

“There are educational benefits in having 3-, 4- and 5-year olds together in the same room, but is it worth it making the older ones who have dropped the nap just stare up at the ceiling during naptime—when they could be having more learning opportunities?” she says.

The transition out of napping may be based on the development of the hippocampus, a part of the brain vital to memory formation, Riggins says. She hypothesizes that as the hippocampus develops, children no longer need sleep to retain things they’ve just learned. The flip side is that ending naps before children’s brains are sufficiently developed could temporarily impair their learning.

Her study will use MRI to examine the development of participants’ brains, as well as assess children’s ability to retain memories after they’ve either taken a nap or been kept awake. For each child, the study will take place in multiple sessions over the course of a year, and they’ll be rewarded with a 3-D model of their brain, printed in McKeldin Library’s MakerSpace, as well as a T-shirt personalized with an MRI of their brain.

To learn more about enrolling your child, email



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