A new scientific review has attracted media attention this week for its finding that daytime naps are linked with later bedtimes and disrupted sleep in toddlers over the age of 2.
But experts caution that some news coverage of the review, which was published online Tuesday in the Archives of Disease in Childhood, exaggerates the researchers' findings.
"There's a lot that we still need to understand about the impact [of napping] on health. The only consistent finding was that children above the age of 2 who don't nap do fall asleep more easily and sleep more consistently throughout the night," Kelly Glazer Baron, an assistant professor of neurology at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, told The Huffington Post. (Baron did not work on the new review.)
"Some people have read [the study] and said, 'Well, that means to sleep better at night, children beyond the age of 2 shouldn't nap,'" she said. "Certainly, by taking away a nap during the day, you will help them sleep more at night because they're just so exhausted. That doesn't mean it's a good thing, though."
In the review, a team of researchers in Australia analyzed 26 previously published studies that all looked at the impact napping has on various health-related factors, including cognition, obesity, sleep quality and certain markers of stress, in children up to age 5.
Overall, the findings from the various studies were not similar enough to draw any clear conclusions, with one exception.
"There is consistent high quality data that indicates napping beyond the age of two lengthens the amount of time it takes for a child to fall asleep," study researcher Karen Thorpe, a professor at Queensland University of Technology, said in a statement released by the school.
"The evidence for napping and its impact on behavior, health and development of a child," she continued, "is less clear."
Given that lack of high-quality evidence, Thorpe and her colleagues write that what the new review truly highlights is the need for more and better research into the effects of napping on children's development and health.
Here in the U.S., experts emphasize the role of parents in understanding their children's sleep patterns. "Parents can usually tell when their child is not getting enough sleep by how the child is doing during the day," Lisa Meltzer, an education fellow for the National Sleep Foundation, told HuffPost. "Behavior and mood are significantly impacted by deficient sleep, so parents should look for their child’s signs."
Meltzer said indications that a child is not getting enough sleep include difficulty waking in the morning, sleeping at least two hours more on the weekends than during weeknights, and falling asleep during inappropriate times during the day, such as at school or during short car rides. She also said to be on the lookout for moods and behaviors that parents often describe as "irritable," "hyper," "grumpy" or "sensitive."
"Sleep is critical at any age, with deficient sleep linked to numerous health-, behavior- and mood-related outcomes," Meltzer explained, adding that it's particularly important for toddlers to get enough shut-eye. "Growth hormone is released during sleep, so children literally grow during sleep. There is also some growing evidence that sleep plays an important role in cortical maturation and skill development."
The authors of the new review say their findings make a strong case for any clinicians working with parents of toddlers with sleep problems to take a close look at the children's napping patterns, which may be a contributing factor.
But at no point do they argue that their findings mean all parents and caregivers should do away with daytime naps for children over 2.
And outside experts, like Baron, echo that drawing any such conclusions is both premature and potentially unwise.
"Certainly [for] children who have nighttime sleep problems, their clinician should investigate the nap ... it is possible that napping too late in the day, napping too long can impact nighttime sleep. Any parent is pretty aware of that," she said. "But any parent who has a 2-year-old also knows that most [of them] need a nap."