Skipped Naps Cost Toddlers More than Sleep

a toddler awake in his bed

When is it OK for a child to stop napping? According to a new study by the University of Colorado, Boulder, that time comes later than many parents believe – and certainly later than many nap-resistant toddlers think.

Researchers at CU Boulder studied children between 2 1/2 and 3 years old who skip a single daily nap, and found that these little ones seemed more anxious and less exuberant, and also had a harder time problem-solving than better-rested children.This is the first study to look at the effects of sleep deprivation on children’s moods and emotions.

Quoted in a CU Boulder news release, assistant professor Monique LeBourgeois, who led the study, said:

For toddlers, daytime naps are one way of making sure their ‘sleep tanks’ are set to full each day. This study shows insufficient sleep in the form of missing a nap taxes the way toddlers express different feelings, and, over time, may shape their developing emotional brains and put them at risk for lifelong, mood-related problems.

LeBourgeois and her colleagues assessed the emotional expressions of healthy, nap-deprived toddlers one hour after their normal nap time, and tested them again on another day following their normal nap. The study, believed to be the first to look at the experimental effects of missing sleep on the emotional responses of young children, indicates the loss of a nap — in this case in just 90 minutes — may make toddlers unable to take full advantage of exciting and interesting experiences and to adapt to new frustrations, she said.

In the study, researchers videotaped the toddlers’ faces while they did picture puzzles, some with missing pieces. The nap-deprived toddlers showed less enthusiasm and satisfaction when they completed puzzles and more frustration – as well as less confusion – when they couldn’t finish the puzzles with missing pieces. The rested toddlers were more confused, which indicated that they were thinking through the problem and realizing there was something wrong.

“The goal of our study was to understand how losing sleep affects the way young kids respond emotionally to their world,” said LeBourgeois. “This is important because toddlerhood is a sensitive period for developing strategies to cope with emotions and a time children naturally lose some sleep as they begin giving up their daytime naps.”

Is your toddler nap-resistant?