We’re often told to avoid napping if we want to improve our sleep quality. But not all napping is created equal
In an ideal world, you would wake up bright and early feeling refreshed and full of energy until your head hits the pillow come nightfall. However, we’re all familiar with the peaks and troughs that can dictate our energy levels throughout the day, and sometimes the temptation to take a nap is just too strong.
But there’s a lot of controversy surrounding the humble nap. Many sleep experts warn that making a habit of napping can be detrimental to the quality of your overall sleep, while others suggest that some napping techniques may be beneficial when taken at the right time and for the right duration.
In order to clear the air and keep you informed, we’re going to take a closer look at the benefits of drawbacks of napping in order to determine whether or not it’s something you can afford to do from time to time.
Should you nap?
This is the big question, and ultimately the answer remains: not if you can help it. As we mentioned earlier, an ideal situation would involve getting your recommended seven to nine hours of quality sleep during the night and enjoying high to moderate energy levels throughout the day. However, when it becomes a choice between napping and living with severe sleep deprivation, then things get more complicated.
Our bodies cannot operate at full capacity on little or no sleep. Rest is required for everything from cognitive function and metabolism to mood regulation and focus, so if you’ve had a terrible night’s sleep, a nap during the day may not be a terrible idea.
If you have to nap, here’s how
It turns out there’s a smart way to nap. You might consider making time for a nap if you experience new fatigue or unexpected sleepiness during the course of the day, or if you know you are about to experience sleep loss due to, for example, working a long shift.
If this is the case, it is always best to keep naps short. There is always the temptation to sleep for as long as possible, but by doing so you increase the risk of impacting the quality of your night-time rest. Aim to nap for around 20 minutes, as this allows you to reap the many restorative benefits of napping without slipping into a deep sleep that will leave you feeling groggier and more tired upon waking. A 20-minute nap has been found to help the majority of people by giving them a greater sense of energy, improved concentration and restored motor skills.
The longer your nap for, the more likely you are to feel worse when you wake up, rather than feeling more alert and refreshed. While napping for longer would allow you to progress further through the natural sleep cycle (helping consolidate memories and enhance creativity, in the process), it is much harder to rouse yourself from these deeper phases of sleep where slow-wave brain activity begins to take hold.
The time at which you take your nap is also important. Aim to take naps in the early afternoon, corresponding with the infamous ‘2pm slump’. Napping after 3pm can interfere with your night-time sleep.
Of course, the optimum nap time can vary from person to person. Individual factors such as your need for sleep, your sleep schedule, your age and any medication you take can all play a role.
When you do decide to nap, make sure you create a restful environment for yourself. Nap in a quiet, dark and cool place that promotes comfort and is free from distractions. Give yourself time to wake up fully from your nap before jumping right back into the day’s activities – particularly if you are thinking of driving or handling machinery.
To help you come back round after a nap, many people recommend having a coffee or other source of caffeine just before closing your eyes as it will begin to take effect and help you become more alert around the time you wish to wake up. But it’s important to be careful that this caffeine dose doesn’t come too late in the afternoon, as it will almost certainly hinder your night-time sleep later that day.