Written by: Lana Adler
Medically Reviewed by: Dr. Sherrie Neustein
Updated December 4, 2020
Napping is a relatively common habit. It’s something we learn to do as young children, and some of us never lose a taste for it. Though most adults technically don’t need to nap, napping is one tool the body can use to maintain a healthy amount of energy and sleep. However, the way we should nap, and for how long, changes throughout our lifetimes and circumstances, and napping should be done in a conscientious way in order to keep it healthy.
How we nap has to do with how we sleep in general. Most mammals are polyphasic sleepers, meaning they sleep in short increments throughout a 24-hour cycle. Humans are monophasic sleepers, meaning the days of our lives are generally divided into two distinct segments: one for sleep, and the other for wakefulness.
There are also two other factors at play: the body’s homeostatic (equilibrium-seeking) need for sleep, and the circadian rhythms, the mental and physical mechanisms that move us toward the optimal times for wakefulness and restful sleep.
As soon as we wake up, the body begins building pressure for us to go back to sleep, which grows throughout the day. In addition, our circadian rhythms also affect us throughout the day. If a person is on a normal sleep cycle, with normal exposure to light and darkness, the mental and physical changes triggered by the circadian rhythms give out a burst of wakefulness in the late afternoon, which is intended to tide us over until it’s time to go to sleep. In this way, the circadian rhythms “override” the homeostatic need for sleep. For many people, however, the building need for sleep becomes overwhelming before the body kicks up the wakefulness. This is the window in which most people feel inclined to take a nap.
People in different age groups (specifically, children and the elderly) generally need naps more than others (such as healthy adults). In addition, napping plays an important role in many cultures, especially those where the midday sun traditionally made or makes work impossible.
How Long Should a Child Nap?
Children have a biological need to nap, especially during infancy and early childhood (from newborn to around age 5). Napping gives their minds and bodies essential recharge time, which they need in order to catch up with all the growing they do in that short period of their lives. Naps are also essential in order to maintain healthy nighttime sleep for infants and young children. Though it may seem counterintuitive, skipping naps may actually keep children up later at night, or make them act out or become overactive from exhaustion. In other words, skipping a nap can be an incredibly disruptive event for the behavior and sleep patterns of a child, with repercussions that can last for days to come.
The pediatrician-recommended guidelines for sleep in children are as follows:
|Age group||Recommended sleep time|
|Infants 4 to 12 months||12 to 16 hours (including naps)|
|Toddlers 1 to 2 years||11 to 14 hours (including naps)|
|Children 3 to 5 years||10 to 13 hours (including naps)|
|Children 6 to 12 years||9 to 12 hours|
|Teens 13 to 18 years||8 to 10 hours|
As you can see, these guidelines include nap time as a part of the recommended healthy sleep schedules for children in the 4-12 month age group, the toddler age group (1-2 years), and the preschooler age group (3 to 5 years). Infants younger than 4 months have more of a sporadic sleep schedule, but ideally spend most of a given 24 hour cycle sleeping. These infants can sleep up to 18 hours a day, with 1-2 hour periods of wakefulness.
- From 4-12 months, infants generally need around 2-4 naps per day, in addition to nighttime sleeping. These naps can range anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours at a time.
- Toddlers typically need two naps per day, which should gradually become one nap per day as they reach the 2-year-old mark. Ideally, this nap will occur sometime in the early afternoon. If a child is still taking two naps per day, the naps should be around 30 minutes to an hour and a half long. Once they transition to one nap per day, the nap can stretch to around three hours.
- Preschoolers (3-5 year olds) generally only need one nap per day, and some older preschoolers may stop napping altogether. Nighttime sleep should be prioritized for children in this age group, so if napping makes it more difficult for them to fall asleep at night, their naps should be shortened or moved to an earlier time of day. If naptime is eliminated, bedtime at night should be made earlier to ensure the child gets their recommended daily amount of sleep. However, many children in this age group do benefit from a nap of around 30 minutes to two hours in the early afternoon.
After preschool age, most children and teenagers do not strictly require naps. Naps can be phased out as a regular part of a child’s schedule around the time their personality and sleep cycle does not become significantly altered without a nap, which usually happens around age 5. However, naps can be incorporated in order to give older children an extra boost during the day when they’re lagging. These naps should be kept to around 30 minutes, and should not extend past the late afternoon.
One of the most important things to remember about naps is that they should be more or less regular and consistent, with the child going down for a nap at roughly the same time every day. If incorporated this way, napping can have significantly positive effects on a child’s mood, attention span, and learning capacity.
Obviously, raising a child can be hectic, and these guidelines may be a challenge for some families. Often, children stray from their intended sleep patterns and it can be difficult to immediately course correct. However, the guidelines are a helpful framework for what to work with a child to achieve.
How Long Should Adults Nap?
Naps do not necessarily have to be a kids-only activity. In fact, there is substantial data that shows naps can actually be very beneficial for adults, when used properly.
For adults, a healthy nap--otherwise known as “power nap”--should be relatively short in duration. This is because of the unique architecture of sleep, specifically when it comes to sleep cycles. During healthy adult sleep, the body goes through several rotations of a full sleep cycle, each with five phases: three stages of NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep, and two stages of deeper REM (rapid eye movement) sleep.
Every full rotation through a five-phase sleep cycle takes approximately 90-110 minutes. When the body reaches the deeper levels of sleep, around phase 3, it releases chemicals into the bloodstream and experiences changes in electric activity in the brain that shift the body further into sleep mode. These changes help keep your body from responding to external stimuli, which normally helps you stay asleep for the night. In the context of a nap, however, going too deep into a sleep cycle and triggering those changes can leave you feeling groggy and disoriented when you wake up, since your body has already started priming you for deeper sleep.
Therefore, in order to avoid increased sleepiness, naps should be kept to the more “shallow” sleep phases, phases 1 and 2. The timing of these phases differs from person to person, but generally, this means keeping naps to around 15-30 minutes. For a small percentage of people, naps that are slightly shorter (approximately 10 minutes) or slightly longer (approximately 40 minutes) work best, but most people fall within the 15-30 range.
Getting the timing right on your own personal sleep cycle may take some trial and error. Once you discover the timing that works for you—and allows you to wake up without feeling groggier or more fatigued than you did before—you can use it to plan your future naps. The exact length of your sleep cycles can also change over time, so make sure to alter your nap length or the use of naps altogether if you start waking up from naps feeling tired.
What Are the Benefits of Naps for Adults?
There are a number of different theories about naps in the world of sleep science, but studies have shown that they offer positive effects and benefits for some people. These include:
- Improved mood
- Sharpened focus
- Improved cognitive abilities, such as short-term memory recall
- Reduced lethargy and fatigue
- Improved athletic performance in physically active people.
- Lowered blood pressure.
Scheduled naps can also be prescribed by a doctor as part of a treatment regimen for conditions such as chronic fatigue, as well as fatigue experienced as a symptom of an underlying illness, such as certain cancers and autoimmune disorders. In addition, scheduled naps can increase alertness and improve mood and performance in off-hour shift work that disrupts typical sleep, such as for on-call doctors or nurses, or long-haul truckers.
A number of studies have also shown that scheduled naps may improve outcomes for people with sleep disorders, specifically insomnia and hypersomnia, and for people who just want to get a better night’s sleep. One such study, conducted at the Weill Cornell Medical Center, regularly scheduled naps during the day were shown to increase time spent in restorative REM sleep during the night. The study’s respondents also showed marked improvement in cognitive testing after incorporating naps into their daily schedules.
What Are the Signs of Unhealthy Napping?
Though napping the right way can lead to increased energy and improved quality of sleep in some people, some naps and excess sleeping outside of normal nighttime sleep may be unhealthy, and may also indicate an underlying issue.
A sudden increase in daytime fatigue with no obvious cause can indicate new or worsening medical conditions, including sleep disorders and other fatiguing conditions. If you start experiencing a sudden desire to nap excessively during the day, you should consult your doctor and seek further testing. Furthermore, if you find yourself feeling more fatigued or inclined to go back to sleep after napping, you should reconsider the length and timing of your naps, or consider eliminating napping altogether. Finally, if you find yourself napping in order to avoid feelings or responsibilities in a way that interferes with your life and your ability to function, consider whether you are using naps as an unhealthy coping mechanism. It may be helpful to discuss next steps with a doctor or mental health practitioner.
Excess or unhealthy napping can cause larger sleep disturbances and even sleep disorders, which have their own health ramifications. These include potential short-term and long-term negative health outcomes, such as increased risk of cardiovascular problems, somatic problems, mental health problems, and issues with cognition. It can also lead to an increased risk of developing or worsening certain types of cancer, diabetes, and a number of other diseases and conditions. These issues can significantly impact a person’s overall health and their quality of life.
How Can I Ensure a Good Nap?
Napping well can be tricky, and some people are just not built to benefit from naps. This could be because of their bodies, their minds, their personalities, their schedules, or their life circumstances. However, for those that do benefit from naps, there are a few general guidelines to follow to help keep naps healthy.
- Keep it short: For most people, the ideal length of a nap is around 15-30 minutes. This gives the body enough time to rest without entering deep sleep and experiencing the associated grogginess. Make sure to have a system for waking yourself up from your nap at the desired time, ideally with back-ups if your primary method isn’t foolproof.
- Keep it Regular: The key to pretty much all healthy sleep is regularity. The human body is a creature of habit, and sleep is no exception. Across the board, studies have shown that consistency is one of the most important attributes of maintaining sleep health.
Make your naps as regular and as consistent as possible. You should try to nap every day, including days when you’re not at work. You should also schedule your naps so they happen at around the same time every day. This will help your body absorb the nap into your daily sleep routine, and become accustomed enough to napping to fully reap the benefits.
Following a nap schedule doesn’t have to be rigid, however napping consistently every day or most days at around the same time will help you get the most out of napping.
- Keep it Early: Napping should occur between when you start to feel the body’s need for sleep, but before the surge of energy provided by the body to tide you through until bedtime. Like the length of your naps, the exact right timing for your nap may take some experimentation to find, but as a rule, you should try not to nap past 3PM. Later naps can throw off your sleep schedule, and make it harder to get to sleep and/or stay asleep at night.
- Keep it Comfortable: Try to establish a place in your home and/or office where you can nap comfortably. This will help you fall asleep quickly, hopefully within your allocated time frame. Choose a place that is as quiet, undisturbed, and dark as possible, and make it physically comfortable enough to relax. If you spend most afternoons at work, consider keeping special sleep accessories (such as pillows, blankets, sleeping mats, eye masks, headphones, white noise machines, and/or ear plugs) in the office.
- Keep it in Perspective: Naps should not become an additional source of stress. If you find that you are experiencing distress from naps, consider reconfiguring the way you think about naps, or making some changes to incorporate naps more easily. If naps are used as part of a treatment regimen for certain conditions, your doctor may be able to work with your job’s HR department in order to secure adequate accommodations.
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