Nearly half the U.S. population (1) naps, whether for enjoyment, to make up for lost sleep, or because of age or health-related factors (2). In addition to boosting alertness, these shorter sleep periods can have a multitude of benefits for thinking and performance.
However, some people find that naps interfere with nighttime sleep. If you are interested in implementing a nap routine, it is helpful to understand how the benefits of a nap vary according to when and for how long you sleep.
Benefits of Napping
Research demonstrates that napping provides a variety of benefits, including:
- Improved Performance: Napping decreases sleepiness and boosts alertness, resulting in faster reaction times.
- Learning and Memory: Naps assist with language learning (3) and working memory (4). They also help your brain rest (5) when it is fatigued by learning, and help consolidate what you have learned.
- Improved Mood: In addition to reducing sleepiness, napping may also help people regulate their emotions and reduce frustration and impulsivity (6). A study on elementary-school children found that those who napped regularly (7) were generally happier, more resilient, and had better self-control.
- Catching up on Missed Sleep: Napping may help counter the effects of sleep deprivation. A study of people who were sleep-deprived found that napping helped reduce stress and boost the immune system (8).
- Physical Recovery: Studies of athletes suggest that napping can reduce muscle and tissue damage in sleep-deprived athletes (9). Taking naps may also restore energy levels (10) and improve performance.
- Childhood Development: Napping helps toddlers develop language skills (11) and plays an important role in early memory development (12), helping preschoolers learn (13).
How Long Is the Ideal Nap?
When we sleep, we progress through different sleep stages (14), starting in light sleep, then deep sleep, and finally rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. The entire cycle lasts about 90 minutes, and each sleep stage serves a different function. Because naps are shorter than nighttime sleep, shorter naps may not contain all the sleep stages. Thus, the ideal nap length depends on which sleep stages we are interested in.
Most experts say a power nap lasting 10 to 20 minutes (15) is enough to offer benefits for alertness, fatigue, and performance. However, the ideal nap length (16) for you may differ depending on a number of factors, including:
How Alert You Need to Be: The longer you nap, the more likely you are to experience deep sleep. Deep sleep is more restorative, but waking up from deep sleep can cause a groggy feeling known as sleep inertia. People who need to perform right after waking up should avoid naps that are too long and might cause them to awake from deep sleep.
How Much Time You Have: To work around the sleep inertia problem, some experts recommend napping for at least 90 minutes, which allows time to complete a full sleep cycle and avoid waking up during deep sleep.
If You Are an Athlete: Longer naps might provide more marked physical benefits. For example, a study on young athletes found that a 90-minute nap (17) trumped the benefits of a 40-minute nap in terms of how it affected attention, physical performance, muscle soreness, and subjective feelings of fatigue.
How Well You Sleep at Night: Obtaining too much deep sleep during the day can reduce the amount of deep sleep you receive at night. If you have trouble sleeping at night, try shortening or eliminating naptime and observe how this affects your sleep.
If You Are Battling An Illness: Long naps have been linked to health problems in older adults (18) including strokes (19), cognitive decline (20), diabetes, heart disease (21), and respiratory problems (22). Though more research is needed, it seems plausible that these conditions might tire out the body rather than result from napping. If that is the case, a longer nap might be the body’s way of trying to heal.
In childhood, napping forms an integral part of the sleep schedule (23). Newborn babies sleep up to 18 hours per day in stints of one to three hours each time. They gradually start to sleep more at night as they grow older, eventually displaying one long sleep period at night plus a few daytime naps of half an hour to two hours.
Toddlers may take two naps or just one long afternoon nap, for an average of 12 to 14 hours of sleep in a 24-hour period. According to some studies, if toddlers (24) skip their naps, they fall asleep faster at night and sleep for longer, and their brain activity suggests they are recovering the missed sleep (25).
As children grow older, they are able to go longer without sleeping. Different children stop napping at different ages, but by age 5 (26), the vast majority of American children no longer nap.
Although napping during adolescence is less common, one study found that teens who regularly napped (27) for 30 to 60 minutes had better reaction times, sustained attention, and nonverbal reasoning.
When Is the Best Time to Nap?
Experts commonly advise to avoid naps after 3 p.m. (28), so they do not interfere with nighttime sleep. The exact cutoff time may depend on your personal sleep-wake cycle.
For most people, napping in the mid-afternoon is ideal. As the day wears on, we become more and more tired, so naps taken later in the day tend to contain more deep sleep. Sleeping too late in the day might cause us to spend less time in deep sleep (29) at night as a result.
Shift workers who work irregular hours might have trouble establishing an ideal nap schedule. In one study, researchers found that taking a nap later in the night shift led to more fatigue upon waking (30), whereas taking a nap too early led to sleepiness and a greater risk of errors. The researchers concluded sleeping approximately halfway through the shift was best.
Tips for Improving Your Naps
To enjoy all the benefits of a nap, set yourself up comfortably just as you would when sleeping at night:
- Nap in a Comfortable Location: Napping in a bed (31) as opposed to a chair can help you obtain better-quality sleep.
- Nap With the Right Accessories: If you are napping at work, consider bringing pillows. Also, using an eye mask and earplugs can help block out light and noise.
- Keep Your Nap Short: In general, it is best to avoid sleeping for too long as this can lead you to wake up feeling groggy.
- Do Not Nap Too Close to Bedtime: Ideally, you should nap late enough in the day so that you have already built up the desire to sleep, but not so late that it interferes with your major sleep period.
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