Infants who nap are better able to apply lessons learned to new skills, while sleeping appears to help toddlers retain learned knowledge.
The US researchers looked at the ability of young children to recognise something similar but not identical to what they have learned and apply it to a new situation. Known as “generalisation,” examples include recognising the letter ‘A’ in different fonts, or understanding a word regardless of who speaks it.
“Sleep is essential for extending learning to new examples,” said study leader Dr Rebecca Gomez, from the University of Arizona.
“Naps soon after learning appear to be particularly important for generalisation of knowledge in infants and pre-schoolers.”
One experiment involved playing an artificial “training language” to year-old infants over loudspeakers.
The babies were then tested to see if they recognised new vocabulary straight after either taking a nap or staying awake. Those who napped were better able to absorb the rules and apply them to recognising new sentences.
Their performance was assessed by timing how long they spent with their heads turned to listen to correctly versus incorrectly structured sentences.
The research was presented at the annual meeting of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society in Boston.