Practicing a motor skill triggers a process of memory consolidation that continues for hours after practice has ended, and becomes manifest in an improved skill at later testing. We used a sequential motor task (finger-to-thumb opposition task) to show that, in humans, the formation of motor skill memories essentially benefits from sleep. Independent of whether placed during daytime or nighttime, sleep after practice enhanced speed of sequence performance on average by 33.5% and reduced error rate by 30.1% as compared with corresponding intervals of wakefulness. The effect of sleep after learning proved to be stable when retesting was postponed for another night, to exclude effects of sleep loss and to assure that all subjects had sufficient sleep before retrieval testing. Also, the consolidating effect of sleep was specific for the motor sequence learned. It did not generalize to a similar sequence containing identical movement segments in a different order. Retention periods of wakefulness improved performance only moderately and only if placed during daytime. The observations demonstrate a critical role of sleep for storing and optimizing motor skills.