Napping, when used appropriately, is an essential part of a good sleep tool kit. Naps have been shown to improve cognitive functioning, co-ordination, memory, learning and to improve decision making. The latter being a main driver in their use by long haul pilots, often as a ‘preventative top-up’, prior to a period of travel.
However, with regards to sleep hygiene, the key principle of napping is that it is should be used as a ‘top-up’ and ‘add-on’ to a healthy sleep routine, and not as a substitute. For those suffering from insomnia, napping in the day will actually get in the way of solving the problem. Equally a host of other physical and mental processes including emotional balance and creativity can only be restored and maintained through a proper amount of night-time sleep.
Naps ranging from 10 minutes through to 90 minutes have all been shown in studies to enhance performance and alertness. So when is it best to nap and how long should you nap for?
Top ten tips
Here’s my guide on how to take naps…
1) Choosing when to nap
We all have a natural afternoon period of sleepiness between 1pm and 3pm ( the Siesta period) which occurs irrespective of whether we have eaten of not. Aim at having your nap during this natural down time within our circadian rhythm.
2) Picking a specific window of time
Within this natural two hour window, a good way to pick your optimal time slot is to add between 6 and 8 hours from your wake up time as long as this keeps you within the 1pm to 3pm window. This nap schedule should then fit in with your chronotype / sleep type. i.e. whether are you a morning lark (go to bed early, get up early, and then naps earlier) or a night owl (whose day starts and finishes later).
Morning larks add more time, and night owls less. Thus if you wake up at ;
5.00am your nap would start about 1.00pm (+8hrs)
6.00am your nap would start at 1.30pm (+7.5hrs)
7.00am your nap would start about 2.00pm (+7 hrs)
8.00am your nap would start at 2.30pm (+6.5hrs)
3) Avoid 30 to 60 minute naps
We now know that we sleep in 90 minute cycles of sleep. These start with a period of light sleep, followed by deeper sleep, when we are more ‘knocked out’ and REM ( Rapid Eye Movement) sleep , which is when we dream. We have about 5 of these full cycles on average in a good night’s sleep.
The trick to successful napping is to either wake up at the end of a complete 90 minutes cycle or to stop short of waking up in the deep sleep phase. Typically waking in the middle of the deep sleep phase leaves us with ‘sleep inertia’ where we feel groggy and disorientated.
This then leaves us with two types napping strategy short and long naps.
4) Short naps
These are from 10 minutes up to 25 to 30 minutes. It’s best to set an alarm at the time you want to wake up so that you aren’t worried about oversleeping. Using meditation techniques like breathing and visualisation can help you settle quicker.
5) Long naps
These are about 90 minutes, (a full sleep cycle) and have the best chance of leaving you feeling both physically and mentally refreshed.
6) Planning ahead
If you are planning a late night try to ‘bank sleep’ by having nap on the day in question, preferably in the natural siesta period. This means that rather than suffer sleep deprivation, you will have accumulated some sleep in the ‘bank’. This type of nap would be a full sleep cycle of 90 minutes or even 2 cycles of 3 hours. This should significantly improve your alertness the day after your late night as you would be starting from a normal amount of sleep rather than trying to catch up on lost sleep.
7) Where to nap?
In the dark and quiet would be perfect, but if not try an eye mask and ear plugs or white noise device to help you settle. Lie down if you can, as it’s a far easier position to get to sleep than sitting.
8) Add a coffee
If you want to wake up from a short nap with a spring in your step, then having coffee before you take a nap. Caffeine takes about 20 minutes to have its effect on our body. So it will kick in as you awake, making you instantly more alert. Use this sort of technique in the mornings only though.
9) Don’t nap if you suffer from insomnia
Research has shown that avoiding naps tend to improve ‘sleep continuity’ for insomniacs. Thus if you suffer from insomnia sort out your regular sleep first before you consider adding naps to your routine. For those who struggle to get to and keep asleep naps can further interfere with your nighttime sleep pattern.
10) Don’t nap too late
The cut off for naps is around 4pm ( unless you work night shifts) . After this time it is just too close to a good bedtime routine and it is outside of the ‘siesta zone’ when it’s easier to naturally nap.