Is it a wise decision to nap, or not? Here’s what you need to know before joining the nap club.
Imagine it’s Saturday morning, and you experienced a night of fragmented sleep. You got up to use the bathroom at least four times, and now the neighbors are outside using their leaf blower. You’re forced to get up, and slow to get moving.
You have your own weekend chores to do—cleaning the house, doing laundry, and grocery shopping—but your mind and your body are whining, “I don’t wanna . . . !”
So you make a deal with yourself: if you get some things done first, you’ll take a glorious afternoon nap!
This internal conversation can certainly get you motivated to start your day. But you might still have some big questions about naps, including:
- When is it NOT the best idea to take a nap?
- Under what circumstances might napping be a wise choice?
- Why do I sometimes wake up more tired from a nap?
- How long should a nap be?
- Will napping affect my ability to sleep tonight?
- In general, is napping a wise choice, or no?
While there are some situations where napping is appropriate, I see many folks napping because it’s all the rage right now. So let’s look at some answers together.
When is it NOT the best idea to take a nap?
First, you need to ask yourself some questions about your reasons for napping:
- Am I using naps to cope with or avoid sleeping problems because it feels easier? If so, then naps may be another tip, trick, hack, or fad remedy that’s distracting you from a real, lasting solution.
- Am I using naps so I can continue to engage in behaviors that I know contribute to sleep deprivation? (I know, you probably don’t want to think about that one!)
- Am I stuck in a sleep-wake pattern that feels “off”? In other words, you typically have more energy when it’s time to be tired, or you’re sleepy when it’s time to be awake. If so, your naps may be training you into a rhythm that’s misaligned with what you want long-term.
- Am I napping because I’m bored, languishing, or otherwise feeling unengaged or disconnected from life? If so, you may also want to consult a therapist.
An occasional nap could be exactly what you need, because it provides a short respite from the day. But if you’re feeling a consistent call to nap, this can also be symptomatic of a larger problem with chronic sleeplessness–one you’d be much better off addressing now, before it leads to more serious health issues.
Under what circumstances might napping be a wise choice?
That said, napping can be a wise decision if you fall into one of these categories:
- You’re a new parent, and your baby is still getting acclimated to their own sleep schedule. Grab your sleep whenever and wherever you can!
- You’re an older adult, and your ability to get refreshing sleep is naturally declining. Since there’s not currently much to be done about this, instituting a regular nap (i.e. getting into a rhythm of napping or more specifically, biphasic sleep) could be helpful.
- You’re dealing with acute or chronic illness or pain. As part of helping you heal, your immune system might be asking for extra sleep. If your condition keeps you from sleeping soundly, this is all the more reason to supplement your nighttime sleep with daily naps.
- You’ve traveled and are looking to align yourself with a different time zone. You should still be mindful of the length and timing of your nap.
- You’re a shift worker. In this case, naps might not be naps–they might be when you have the opportunity to sleep because that’s how your job is structured.
Why do I sometimes wake up more tired from a nap?
As you may know, the sleep cycle is comprised of five different stages, described (among other things) by the type of brain wave activity experienced in each. The most widely known stage is REM (Rapid-Eye-Movement); others include alpha, theta, and delta brain waves.
When you sleep at night, you cycle through these five stages repeatedly. Each cycle lasts approximately 90 minutes.
Depending on how long you nap, you might wake up in the middle of a sleep stage. Like the surprising “to be continued” at the end of an engaging TV show, waking mid-stage can make the nap feel incomplete at best. At worst, you’ll feel even more tired than before you started! (That’s the opposite of a wise nap, for sure!)
How long should a nap be?
The “ideal” duration of a nap is all over the place, and often depends on the article or study you’re reading. Some say 15-20 minutes; others say 30-40; yet others say 60-90 minutes. Is just about the time you have available, or is there some standard to follow?
Going back to the sleep stages, you have choices. If you know the quality of your sleep the night before was poor (and you have the time), you might aim to complete an entire 90-minute sleep cycle. This might be the best option for those in the special situations I previously described.
If you’re supplementing a brief disturbance from the night before, or just looking to recharge your batteries, touching the theta wave stage (2) is likely enough, and will occur with about 20 minutes of nap time. You will enter a state of deep relaxation (not unlike meditation!), which might be just the boost you need.
Will napping affect my ability to sleep tonight?
Along with circadian rhythm, sleep drive is what helps you fall and stay asleep at night. Your drive to sleep builds throughout your day, and ideally, you release it by sleeping at night.
In my experience, a nap (of the durations previously suggested) should not significantly affect nighttime sleep—if done on an “as-needed” basis.
That said, your sleep is impacted by many different factors, and how those factors influence YOU and YOUR SLEEP might be different from other people.
So if you “have a feeling” that napping is reducing your ability to sleep at night, it might be more wise to reduce or eliminate your nap.
Note: You might regularly fall asleep in the evening in a place that’s not your bed. For example, on the sofa with the TV on. Just for fun, what would be different if you considered this to be an evening nap?
In general, is it wise to nap or not?
As with many sleep-related things, the answer is “it depends.”
If you’re taking a short, occasional nap to honor your body’s natural request for some rest throughout the day, that’s one thing. If you’re using naps to cope with or avoid a problem with disrupted or short sleep because it feels easier, then naps are still acting as a band-aid and it may not be wise to nap.
Bottom line: feeling a consistent call to napping can also be symptomatic of a larger problem with chronic sleeplessness—one you’d be much better off addressing now, before it leads to more serious health issues.
Napping might be all the rage at the moment, and there’s still NOTHING as powerful as learning how to sleep efficiently and effectively at night!