So your toddler missed his or her afternoon nap? You know what that means: You’re not getting anything done and, to add insult to injury, you’re about to have an overtired, cranky kid on your hands. This phenomenon is a little something I like to call the “nap-tastropohe.”

Sometimes, despite your best efforts, getting a baby to sleep is fruitless—and that’s totally ok. One day at a time, mama! But a new study from the University of Massachusetts Amherst explains how sleep and memory are connected. More specifically, why regular naps, combined with a good night’s sleep, are important for more than a mama’s (or papa’s) sanity: Research shows that naps and overnight sleep work together to improve early childhood memory and emotional wellbeing.

The Study on Sleep and Memory

To examine how sleep and memory are connected, neuroscientists showed 49 children, ages three through five, familiar and unfamiliar faces paired with emotional “mean” or “nice” statements. (I.e. “Lena is always nice. Today she helped us pour milk into our cups at lunch time.”) The kids were then tested at three points during a 24-hour period: immediately after learning about the faces, after a delay either with a nap or awake, and again the next day.

The Results

There was no difference in memory accuracy between children who had a nap and those who remained awake during the day. However, when the children’s memories were tested again the next day, the children’s memory accuracy was greater if they had napped the previous day, suggesting a strong correlation between sleep and memory.

“Individually, the nap and overnight sleep bouts were not sufficient to induce changes in memory,” say study authors. “A significant benefit of napping was observed only when changes across the entire 24-hour period were considered. This supports an interplay between the nap and subsequent overnight sleep in the consolidation of memories in young children.”

Researchers say their work also highlights the way naps help preschool-aged children process emotions.

“A common observation of parents and preschool teachers is that children seem either grumpy or giddy when they skip their nap,” says lead researcher Rebecca Spencer. “Our results are consistent with these observations of caregivers. Naps do contribute to emotion processing at this young age.”

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The Takeaway

Study authors say their findings on sleep and memory reinforce the importance of establishing regular sleep routines and maintaining daily naps averaging 70 minutes throughout preschool years.

“Napping remains an important part of the daily preschool schedule and sufficient time for sleep should be protected.” — Rebecca Spencer

Kids and Sleep: How Much Is Enough?

There’s so much ground to cover when it comes to kids and sleep. Did you know newborns sleep anywhere from 10.5 to 18 hours per day?! Even 18-year-olds need 9 hours of sleep each night. Find out how much sleep your kids need here. And if you have trouble getting your little one down at bedtime, check out how you can help your kids sleep an extra hour each night.