Sleep plays a role in strengthening new words and integrating them with existing vocabulary knowledge, consistent with neural models of learning in which sleep supports hippocampal transfer to neocortical memory. Such models are based on adult research, yet neural maturation may mean that the mechanisms supporting word learning vary across development. Here, we propose a model in which children may capitalise on larger amounts of slow-wave sleep to support a greater demand on learning and neural reorganisation, whereas adults may benefit from a richer knowledge base to support consolidation. Such an argument is reinforced by the well-reported “Matthew effect”, whereby rich vocabulary knowledge is associated with better acquisition of new vocabulary. We present a meta-analysis that supports this association between children’s existing vocabulary knowledge and their integration of new words overnight. Whilst multiple mechanisms likely contribute to vocabulary consolidation and neural reorganisation across the lifespan, we propose that contributions of existing knowledge should be rigorously examined in developmental studies. Such research has potential to greatly enhance neural models of learning.