Body Rest

Does Someone Need a Nap?

January 8, 2018
Woman asleep with dog
© Rafal Jedrzejek / Unsplash
Quick Read

Napping can be good for you in measured doses

  • It’s OK to nap during the day as long as it doesn’t interfere with your nighttime sleep routine.
  • Most people get the majority of their sleep at night, but a nap can serve to complement your nighttime sleep when you don’t get quite enough.
  • Sleep needs vary by the individual, but the general consensus is that most people should average about eight hours of sleep each night.
  • Keep your naps to an hour or less to avoid waking up groggy.

Babies get away with two or even three of these in a day. But what about you? Does it make you a lazy person for wanting to nap?

There’s nothing wrong with a nap, according to Sina Gharib, M.D., a sleep specialist at the Sleep Medicine Center at Harborview.

“As long as you average about eight hours of sleep per 24 hours and a nap doesn’t interfere with your nighttime sleep, then go for it,” says Gharib.

But like other aspects of sleep that are unique to the individual (pillow preference, anyone?), napping is too. Some swear by a short afternoon nap whereas others are left groggy and confused.

Sleeping used to be different

Most people accomplish the majority of their sleep at night. It’s just the way the world is set up now, says Gharib.

It wasn’t always this way.

Historical data suggests that prior to the Industrial Revolution, nighttime sleep was often accomplished in two separate chunks of time. There was a first sleep, an interlude of an hour or two, and then a second sleep, says Gharib.

This kind of sleep is known as bi-phasic sleep. It was as the Industrial Revolution unfolded that attitudes toward sleep shifted in favor of eight hours of consolidated sleep over the bi-phasic sleep pattern.

As long as you have a period of sleep that lasts from three to four hours, then this kind of bi-phasic sleeping is fine. But if for some reason your nighttime sleep duration is not long enough, a nap can help add that extra time that you missed the night before, says Gharib.

Is there an ideal length of time to nap?

Ideal nap length, just like ideal sleep time, varies from person to person, says Gharib. But keeping your nap to an hour or less is a good rule of thumb.

That’s because if you sleep an hour or less, you won’t sleep long enough to reach the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep—the deepest part of your sleep cycle. Getting REM sleep in the afternoon could disrupt your nighttime sleep routine. And some people experience confusion, grogginess and a sense of feeling even more tired when woken from REM sleep.

“Sleeping an hour or less is an easy way to avoid these potential complications,” says Gharib.

When to nap

It’s not by coincidence that in many cultures, people take a short nap in the early afternoon, such as a siesta.

There is a natural tendency for the body’s sleep cycle and circadian rhythm to coalesce in the early afternoon time to promote some sleepiness, says Gharib.

But avoid napping in the late afternoon or early evening, as doing so can make it harder to fall asleep at night.

Where to nap

When you do nap, it’s best to do so in a place that you would want to sleep normally, says Gharib. It doesn’t have to be in your bedroom, but it shouldn’t be in the middle of a conference because it’s just not going to be as restorative, he says.

Many tech firms—Google and Facebook among them—provide sleeping pods for employees to snooze on the job. If you’re not lucky enough to have a company-sponsored napping pod, then a comfortable couch should do the trick, says Gharib.

And what if you’re just not good at napping?

“If someone is taking a nap and feels extremely groggy when they wake up, then I would recommend against the nap. Napping is not for everyone," says Gharib.

Nobody really knows exactly how many hours someone needs to sleep. Though most people need about eight hours every night, every person is slightly different. There is no one right answer.

Realistically, most people don’t get eight hours per night. Typical averages are closer to seven hours. That’s where napping can fit in.

Think of a nap as bonus sleep, says Gharib. You can add a little extra sleep time now and then as you need to.

Or if you’re the kind of person whose lifestyle allows it, go ahead and take a long afternoon nap and work until three in the morning. There is nothing wrong with that per se, says Gharib.

Don’t obsess about your sleep

If you’re regularly getting eight hours of sleep daily and you still feel tired, that’s when there could be something wrong with the quality of your sleep and you may need a formal evaluation by a sleep specialist, says Gharib. But he says that some people get a little too objective about measuring every aspect of their sleep, especially with sleep applications on electronic devices.

“Remember that sleep has been with us for millions of years. It is a fundamental part of biology. You do not have to regulate it by the minute,” says Gharib.

Just try to get enough of it in a 24-hour period on average. If you get a couple hours less of it one night, no big deal, you will catch up with it the next few nights or with a nap. If you are chronically sleep deprived, then you will not “catch up” by extra sleep for one or two nights, but for occasional sleep shortages, naps can help make up for missed time, says Gharib.

“Don’t stress out, just give yourself the time and place and it will happen,” he says.

Rapid eye movement (REM) and slow wave sleep

The reason you want your nighttime sleep to last at least three to four hours is because you want to allow enough time to reach the deepest parts of your sleep cycle, known as slow wave sleep and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.

As its name suggests, your eyes move rapidly in different directions during REM sleep. It is also at this time that you dream. Slow wave sleep is also thought to be restorative, particularly for the cortex of the brain. Both slow wave sleep and REM sleep may help with memory consolidation.

You generally enter into REM sleep about 90 minutes after falling asleep and this cycle repeats itself three to four times overnight. As the night progresses, the length and density of REM sleep increases.