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To nap or not to nap is one of the most frequently asked questions our sleep coaches get…to which there’s not a one-size-fits-all answer. If you have trouble falling asleep at night, naps may not be your best bet. That said, not everyone’s situation is the same. Some people have to nap to help them get through the remainder of the day—in which case, there are certain tips, dos, and don’ts to help you be more strategic with and get the most out of your midday nap. Here’s what you need to know.
There are five main categories of naps (1) that correlate with our incentive for taking one.
- Recovery naps following a period of sleep loss
- Prophylactic naps in anticipation of and preparation for sleep loss
- Appetitive naps just for enjoyment
- Fulfillment naps in response to increased sleep need during periods of growth and development
- Essential naps because of sickness or some sort of inflammatory burden
There are numerous cognitive advantages of napping, including facilitating memory formation, (2-3) learning capacity, (4-5) and emotional processing. (6)
READ MORE: The Relationship Between Sleep + Memory
Here’s where things get a bit tricky. While there are established benefits of napping, there can also be risks for those in specific age groups or with underlying health conditions. Studies have shown that afternoon naps of a longer duration may be associated with a higher risk of hypertension. (7) Additionally, napping may be associated with neurobiological changes in depression and cognition for older adults predisposed to dementia. (8)
Short naps that consist of lighter sleep stages (stage 1 - 2, both non-REM) have been found to immediately reduce sleepiness upon waking. On the other hand, longer naps that leave time for stage 3 short-wave sleep (SWS) may result in sleep inertia, which is a more official term for that feeling you get when you’re in between sleepiness and wakefulness (with the strong desire to return back to sleep). However, after that feeling has dissipated, sleepiness remains lower for longer, indicating that there may be a better long-term benefit with longer naps. (9-10)
But what does “short” or “long” even mean in terms of number of minutes?
In a study (11) that compared a control group (no naps) with various study groups divided by nap duration (5, 10, 20, and 30 minutes), the 10-minute nap was found to be the most immediately effective as measured by:
- Sleep latency: amount of time it takes to fall asleep
- Subjective sleepiness
- Cognitive performance
In fact, these benefits were maintained for up to 155 minutes after the nap.
For comparison, here’s how the other study groups performed:
- 5 minutes: few, if any, benefits compared to no-nap control group
- 20 minutes: improvements appeared 35 minutes after napping and were maintained for up to 125 minutes after the nap
- 30 minutes: resulted in a period of impaired alertness and performance, followed by improvements maintained for up to 155 minutes after the nap
There are different stages of sleep that the human body cycles through over the course of the night. On the one hand, you have non-rapid eye movement sleep (NREM or non-REM sleep), which is known as quiet sleep. And on the other hand, rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which is more active.
What type of sleep do we get when we nap? It depends. (12)
For infants, the type of sleep they get when they nap is identical to the type of sleep they get at night, both of which are heavy on the REM.
- Early childhood
During early childhood, naps shift to predominantly non-REM with just a bit of REM.
- Young adult
As young adults, naps of substantial length are comprised of both non-REM and REM sleep.
- Older adults
In this stage, naps are dominated by lighter non-REM stages with less frequent REM sleep.
Do daytime naps affect nighttime sleep duration?
Napping during the day decreases the "hunger" for shut-eye come nighttime and may not be best if you have trouble falling asleep at night or suffer from insomnia. That being said, not everyone's situation is the same. Some people have to nap to help them through the remainder of the day, so if you must, consider if it's possible to decrease the duration to get enough sleep at night. Generally speaking, short naps don't affect nighttime sleep quality for most.
Kelly O’Brien, one of Proper’s sleep coaches, likens napping to snacking. “A heavy snack too close to dinner will decrease the appetite,” she explains. “But if you are hungry between meals, you can opt for a light, healthy snack (akin to a short rest) to take the edge off but not ruin the meal. This ‘rest’ can be thought of as a brief pause or reset versus actually sleeping.”
“Many of the people I work with who have napping as part of the equation are usually napping to get through the day,” adds Lauren Hoogs. I see this as a natural byproduct to poor sleep and will typically have people focus on other behaviors before tackling napping because it’s something that is helping them get through the day. Plus, once you’re sleeping better, the urge to nap will subside!”
Is it bad to take a nap every day?
Frequent (i.e. daily) napping has been associated with several negative health outcomes primarily for older adults, including an increased risk for depression, (13) hypertension, (14) diabetes, (15) osteoporosis, (16) cognitive decline, (17) and microvascular disease. (18)
“Think of it this way,” advises Lauren. “If sleep is connected to proper bodily function and general wellness, anything that negatively impacts it, like napping, will contribute to these health risks.”
When coaching clients ask Kelly about napping frequency, her first priority is to determine what might be the root cause of one’s drive to nap frequently.
“This may lead them to a visit with their medical practitioner to address any deeper concerns,” she explains, “because we know that a sedentary lifestyle contributes to a myriad of health concerns and that effort creates energy. Sometimes, though, frequent or daily napping is purely out of habit, and we’ll work on strategies to gradually shift into a healthier behavior that also feels like rest. I worked with a client who viewed napping as a way to reward himself for his hard work. When we started coaching, we decided to tackle other strategies first. As his sleep quality improved, he felt empowered to reframe the 'nap as reward' mindset and chose other rewards instead. This felt like a big win to him!"
When is the best time to take a nap?
Studies have shown benefits in sleep efficiency, latency, and quantity of slow-wave sleep for naps taken closer to the afternoon circadian dip in alertness (around 3 - 5pm) compared with those taken too close to bedtime (around 7 - 9pm). (19)
But for sleep professionals like Kelly, the best time is whatever time doesn’t impact your sleep quality or duration, which varies from person to person.
“Sometimes it can be helpful to ‘reverse engineer’ a strategy to find what the best nap time might be for you (assuming the nap is necessary). For example, if you’re napping after work and then experiencing sleep disruption, we might try a lunchtime nap to see what, if any, impact that might have on your sleep. More often, I find that clients are willing to give up naps as their sleep experience improves.”
When is it too late to take a nap?
“While it can feel tempting to hangout on the couch until you feel drowsy, try your hardest to make sure it doesn’t actually turn into sleep” advises Lauren. “This seems to have significant implications on people’s sleep quality or ability to fall asleep” — implications that, as Kelly adds, don’t always manifest as the more obvious problems falling asleep, but also more frequent middle-of-the-night disruptions.
“I’ve worked with a handful of clients who, once they start preventing this from happening, see some real improvements in their sleep,” explains Lauren.
One thing both Lauren and Kelly insist on is not adding extra stress or guilt if you do find yourself napping.
“I take extra care not to make my napper clients feel guilty or wrong, as it’s usually a sign that their body needs it,” explains Lauren. “By accepting that, my clients are much more likely to listen to and respect their body. Plus, that guilt and stress are often a huge part of why sleep issues are happening in the first place!”
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