Whether in a hammock on a lazy summer day or curled up under a cozy blanket on an overcast wintry afternoon, few things feel more indulgent than a nice nap. After all, nap time is most often associated with babies and toddlers.
As it turns out, naps can be good for anyone at any age. But anyone who’s drifted off for a blissful few hours then lay awake tossing and turning come bedtime knows that napping for too long can ruin your overnight rest.
So read on for tips on how long to nap and how to make your nap worthwhile.
Are naps good for you?
First, let’s define what a nap is: A nap is defined as a short period of sleep taken during the day. Naps can vary in type and length, but they typically happen at a time not near your standard sleep time, which for most people means daytime. That daytime sleep can do wonders to alleviate a natural decline in energy and wakefulness, sharpen your cognitive skills, and perk you up for the rest of your afternoon and evening.
If you love a good nap, know that you’re in good company: One in three adults in the U.S. admit to taking a nap on any given day.
Naps can boost your mood and help you (temporarily) make up a sleep deficit — because life happens, and we don’t always log a restful seven to nine hours each night.
“However, keep in mind they’re not a long-term solution, as napping can disrupt your natural sleep debt that begins to build the moment you wake up in the morning. And that can create chronic sleep issues,” says Jenna Gress Smith, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist specializing in behavioral sleep medicine.
To get the most from your nap, it’s helpful to understand the different types of naps, the function they serve, and how they can support or hurt your health and your circadian rhythm (your internal body clock).
Different Kinds of Naps
When you think of napping, this is likely the nap you conjure. It’s the drowsy, easy hammock nap, and the one you take to make up for sleep loss if you were out or experienced interrupted sleep the night before. “Recovery naps should be taken in the earlier part of the day,” says Gress Smith. “No later than noon or 12:30, so as not to throw your next night’s sleep schedule off.”
Duration: 90 minutes (a full sleep cycle).
Power nap (aka NASA nap)
Think of this as a “nap-petizer.” “Power naps are short and sweet,” says Gress Smith, “and can give you an energy boost when you’re dragging.” A power nap is a snippet of a sleep cycle, getting you up before your brain cycles into deep sleep. The benefits of a power nap include improved memory and better cognitive function, and possibly even improved heart health. After years of research, NASA scientists found that power naps were able to boost their pilots’ performance by 34% and improve alertness by up to 54%.
Duration: 10 to 20 minutes so you don’t move into a deep sleep stage. Make sure to set an alarm.
Coffee nap (aka caffeine nap)
A cousin to the power nap, the coffee nap is a funny concept for some people to wrap their head around. Indeed, drinking coffee before a short nap might seem counterintuitive, but research has shown that the combo, if well-timed, packs a one-two punch when it comes to boosting energy levels and productivity. That’s because the caffeine kicks in about 15 minutes after drinking your coffee, just as you awaken from your nap.
Duration: 20 minutes max.
Naps taken during any type of illness are considered essential. When you first get sick, changes in the body, including fever and any circulating pathogens, can trigger more sleepiness. Your immune system needs extra energy to fight off infection and promote recovery and healing, and that can make you drowsy. If you’re sick and you’re tired, listen to your body. Don’t try to override any sleepiness you feel — or worry about nap timing (more on that below).
Duration: As long as is needed to feel rested.
How long should I nap?
The optimal nap length can vary from person to person for any number of reasons — your age, the type of job you have, your lifestyle, or your schedule, for example. “Generally speaking, most sleep experts agree that assuming you’re not sick, either a short nap of around 20 minutes or a nap that allows you to complete a full sleep cycle (about 90 minutes) is best,” says Gress Smith.
Anytime you fall asleep, you begin to move through a series of sleep stages. Researchers have found that 5-minute naps are too short to allow your body to move deep enough through any sleep stage to produce a benefit. Naps of around 20 minutes, often referred to as “power naps,” provide enough rest to ensure you’ll wake up feeling energized and more alert, but if lack of alertness is a concern, research suggests that drinking a cup of coffee right before you lie down for a nap can supercharge your alertness when you wake up. These are called coffee naps.
Sleeping for 30 minutes or longer, however, gets you into deeper, slow-wave sleep and can leave you in a groggy state — called sleep inertia — for up to an hour after you wake up, provided you don’t complete the full sleep cycle.
If you need a longer snooze, “napping for around 90 minutes allows you to cycle through all four sleep stages,” says Gress Smith. “Since you’re not rousing yourself in the middle of slow wave sleep, you shouldn’t wake up feeling woozy.”
What time of day is best for napping?
While naps can be a great afternoon pick-me-up, you’ll want to make sure to take yours early enough in the day that it doesn’t interfere with your nighttime sleep.
“The ideal time for most people to nap is between noon and 3 p.m.,” says Gress Smith. “Or you can figure up to around seven hours after you wake up. At that point, we all experience a natural dip in our circadian rhythm due to a small release of melatonin. When that happens, our sleep pressure (adenosine levels) is still rising, which conspire to bring on that proverbial afternoon slump.
“If you nap at this point, during a natural energy dip, it’s less likely to disturb your nighttime sleep,” Gress Smith says. “If you nap too late in the day, and for too long, you can throw off your sleep schedule and make it harder to fall asleep that night.”
When is a nap not a good idea?
Napping isn’t for everyone. In fact, some people find napping counterproductive or difficult to achieve in the midst of a busy day. Although reducing sleep pressure can combat fatigue, it can also interfere with your ability to fall asleep at bedtime. People who have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep at night — for instance, those with insomnia — may want to avoid napping, says Gress Smith.
For those who cannot quiet their minds during the day, naps can be a source of frustration or even anxiety. Those people might find it more productive to engage in walking meditation or non-sleep deep rest.
Tips for a great nap
If you’re someone who can benefit from some well-timed Zzz’s, here are a few tips for taking a great nap.
- Keep it short (or long). Stick to the two recommended nap lengths, either 20 minutes or 90 minutes. If your goal is to get a little afternoon boost, that will ensure you wake up feeling recharged rather than groggy.
- Set an alarm. Don’t leave the timing to chance, because chances are you’ll wake up somewhere outside the recommended nap lengths.
- Nap early. Napping late in the day can affect your ability to fall asleep at bedtime. Try napping around the halfway point in your day (or earlier) — between the time you wake up and the time you plan to go to bed.
- Pick a nap-friendly environment. To actually fall asleep, your space should be conducive to sleeping, which means comfortable, dark, cool, and quiet. Consider wearing an eye mask or earplugs.
- Set aside the day’s worries. If you have trouble letting go of worries or putting your to-do list out of your mind, try practicing a relaxation technique or some deep breathing. These can help you fall asleep and wake up from your nap feeling refreshed.
- Reflect on why you’re napping. Think about what you hope to gain from your nap. When you set an intention, you can plan your nap around that goal. And it may help you fall asleep.