A nap is a short period of sleep, usually taken during the day. One-third of American adults nap. Many swear by napping as an effective way to relax and recharge, while others find naps unhelpful and disruptive to their sleep.
Not all naps are created equal, and many factors impact how helpful naps can be. By understanding the role of napping, you can learn to take effective naps that support your body’s internal clock and maintain your energy level throughout the day.
Naps can be categorized depending on the function they serve. Thinking about what you’re hoping to gain from a nap is one part of making napping work for you.
One significant factor responsible for the varied effects of naps is their length. Anytime we fall asleep, we begin to move through a series of sleep stages. Researchers found that five-minute naps are too short to move deep enough through sleep stages to produce a notable benefit. On the other hand, sleeping for 30 minutes or longer gives the body enough time to enter deep (slow-wave) sleep. However, napping for too long or waking up from slow-wave sleep can leave you feeling groggy for up to an hour. This period of drowsiness is also called “sleep inertia.”
Given these considerations, the best nap length in most situations is one that is long enough to be refreshing but not so long that sleep inertia occurs. Naps lasting 10 to 20 minutes are considered the ideal length. They are sometimes referred to as “power naps” because they provide recovery benefits without leaving the napper feeling sleepy afterward.
Exceptions to this include essential naps when sick, which are often longer because our bodies require more sleep when dealing with an illness. Also, fulfillment naps in children should not be limited to 20 minutes, as children have a higher sleep requirement than adults.
If you’re a healthy adult and wish to take a longer nap, don’t do it right before you need to be alert. Keep in mind that napping during the daytime could interfere with your nighttime sleep.
Napping can be helpful or harmful depending on a few different factors, such as your age, what time and how long you nap, and the reason for your nap. To get the most benefit from napping, it’s important to learn how each of these factors affects the impact of a nap.
Homeostatic sleep drive is the technical term for the feeling of pressure to sleep. It is synonymous with the hunger we feel for food the longer it is after our last meal. When we wake up from a good night’s sleep, your homeostatic sleep drive is low. The pressure slowly increases throughout the day until bedtime, when we feel sleepy. Sleeping at night decreases sleep pressure, and then the cycle begins again the next day.
Napping during the day diminishes homeostatic sleep drive, which can help us feel more awake and perform better. As a result, napping can help with:
Naps also play a special role for drivers. Driving while drowsy is dangerous for you, your passengers, and others on the road. Drowsy drivers are involved in hundreds of thousands of car crashes in the United States each year. To counter this, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recommends to first, get adequate amounts of sleep (7-8 hours) on a nightly basis. Before a long drive, get a good night’s sleep. If you start to feel sleepy while driving, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recommends drinking caffeine and pulling over safely for a 20-minute nap. However, this is not a long-term solution, as naps and caffeine are known to increase alertness for only a short period of time.
Shift work is any work schedule that falls outside the hours of 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. Shift work is associated with increased risk for health effects and injury due to sleep loss and circadian rhythm disruptions. Planned napping improves alertness and reaction time in shift workers.
Napping isn’t for everyone. In fact, some people find napping counterproductive. Although reducing sleep pressure can combat fatigue, it can also interfere with your ability to fall asleep at bedtime. People who have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep at night, for example, those with insomnia, may want to avoid napping.
Sleep inertia (sleepiness after waking from a nap) can be minimized or avoided by taking shorter naps. However, you can still feel disoriented even after a short nap, so napping may be disruptive if you need to get right back to work afterward.
Taking a few key steps will set you up for your most successful nap.
Children need more sleep than adults, and younger children need more sleep than older children. As a result, the role of napping changes as we age. The National Sleep Foundation published evidence-based sleep recommendations by age. These outline the total recommended hours of sleep per day and are meant to include both nighttime sleep and daytime naps.
While research shows trends in the effects of napping, every individual is different. If you have questions about your sleep patterns, speak with a doctor or sleep expert.
Taking naps can help children get sufficient sleep. Sleep is important for a child’s physical, intellectual, and emotional development. Researchers have studied naps in children from infancy to adolescence:
Many of the positive effects seen in children who nap are also found in young adults. Napping in early adulthood can alleviate sleepiness and improve cognitive performance and emotion regulation. However, a midday nap isn’t an option for everyone. Employment and other obligations can make napping impossible. Also, some people simply have a hard time falling asleep during the day or away from the comfort of home.
In older adults, certain adverse health effects have been associated with very long, mid-day naps (more than an hour in duration). Researchers have linked long naps with an increased risk for diabetes, heart disease, and depression. This may be because long midday naps in adults is a signal that nighttime sleep is of poor quality. Further research is needed to understand the relationships between napping and these negative outcomes in older adults.