Investigators examined young children's ability to recognize instances that are similar, but not identical, to something they've recently learned and apply it to a new situation, a skill called generalization.
In language, this would include being able to distinguish a grammatical pattern in a sentence they'd never heard before, or to understand a word no matter who says it, the study authors explained.
Experiments showed that language generalization was better in infants and preschoolers after they had naps, according to the findings presented Tuesday at the Cognitive Neuroscience Society's annual meeting in Boston.
"Sleep is essential for extending learning to new examples," researcher Rebecca Gomez, of the University of Arizona, said in a society news release. "Naps soon after learning appear to be particularly important for generalization of knowledge in infants and preschoolers."
Another study presented at the meeting found that adequate sleep helps adults remember their future intentions.
"Whether we make plans for the next holiday or whether we just think about what to have for dinner tonight, all of these plans heavily depend on our ability to remember what we wanted to do at the appropriate time in the future," researcher Susanne Diekelmann, of the University of Tubingen in Germany, said in the news release.
"The likelihood that we remember to execute our intentions at the appropriate time in the future is substantially higher if we have had a good night's sleep after having formed the intention," she added.
Data and conclusions presented at meetings are typically considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed medical journal.
The National Sleep Foundation has more about sleep.