At best, napping is viewed as a luxury or indulgence. At worst, it’s seen as a slothful activity.
Maybe you’ve also felt the pangs of guilt after awaking from a short snooze. Or judged someone else for falling asleep at their desk.
But napping doesn’t make you a lazy worker, and it doesn’t pillage your productivity. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
Napping actually offers a slew of benefits, which might make you reconsider your stance on midday slumbers — and add them to your routine.
“Napping leads to improvements in mood, alertness and performance [such as] reaction time, attention, and memory,” according to Kimberly Cote, Ph.D, Professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brock University. (Her 2009 review, co-authored with researcher Catherine Milner, summarizes the research on these many benefits.)
Research at NASA demonstrated that pilots who had a 26-minute nap in the cockpit were more alert — by 54 percent — and had improved performance by 34 percent. Studies using advanced tools such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) also have found performance benefits for nappers. Studies have even suggested that napping may produce the same memory gains as a full night’s slumber, as shown on tasks that tested declarative memory, motor memory and spatial memory.
Tips for a Truly Beneficial Nap
All naps aren’t created equal. For instance, a two-hour nap may leave you feeling disoriented and groggy, and even disrupt your nighttime slumber. So what’s the best nap to take?
An ideal nap is a short one. According to research, 10 to 20 minutes is best, Cote said. “Longer naps will allow you to enter deeper sleep, which will contribute to the grogginess — also called sleep inertia — experienced upon awakening and disrupt nighttime sleep,” she said. Napping for 10 minutes is especially helpful at work, because you get the maximum benefits with less grogginess, she said.
Such short naps primarily consist of stage 1 and stage 2 sleep. Stage 2 sleep may offer the most benefits. A 2005 study found that participants who were awakened after spending just three minutes in stage 2 sleep were alert and showed an improvement in performance. Participants awakened after five minutes in stage 1 sleep felt less tired and sleepy, but their performance deteriorated.
In their review, based on the evidence, Cote and Milner suggested that people who get enough sleep at night can nap later in the day. But people who are sleep-deprived do better with earlier naps.
In general, experts recommend sleeping between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. or between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. According to the National Sleep Foundation, also important is snoozing in a dark and quiet room with a comfortable temperature.
Sleep researcher Sara Mednick, Ph.D, who calls napping her secret weapon in her book, Take a Nap! Change Your Life, created a “nap wheel” to help people figure out their optimum naptime.
When Napping Isn’t Helpful
For people struggling with insomnia – who have a tough time either falling asleep or staying asleep – naps may sabotage nighttime sleeping even more, Cote said, especially if their naps are longer or later in the evening.
If you are struggling with insomnia, consider finding a psychologist who specializes in treating insomnia with cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). You might be surprised to learn that CBT is actually the first line of treatment for insomnia — not medication.