How to Nap Without Messing Up Your Sleep Schedule

Jun 11, 2021Kate Emswiler0 comments

If you’ve ever zonked out midday and woken up feeling calm and refreshed, you know that naps can be like little treasures sent from heaven to make us happier and more productive. And it’s not just in your head — plenty of studies have shown that naps are awesome, and most sleep experts agree that for adults who don’t struggle with insomnia and who have ordinary sleep schedules (i.e. those who don’t work overnight shifts), taking a short nap in the early afternoon can provide an abundance of health benefits.

“[Napping] can reduce fatigue and improve relaxation,” said Dr. Candice Seti, licensed clinical psychologist and certified insomnia treatment clinician, in an email. “It has been shown to help improve your mood and increase alertness. It may even lead to improved performance and memory.”

But if you don’t time it quite right — or if the nap lasts longer than 20 minutes or so — that daytime respite can wreak havoc on your nighttime sleep, which can have serious consequences for your mental and physical health.

Restful nighttime sleep is crucial, and you don’t want to sacrifice it for anything, even a delicious daytime nap. We asked sleep experts to provide their best tips for napping effectively during the day in a way that doesn’t mess up your nighttime sleep schedule.

Nap Timing Is Everything

Schedule is the operative word — everything comes down to making sure your (short) nap is completed well in advance of your evening bedtime. Although the advice on naps can vary from expert to expert, there’s one tip on which everyone we spoke to agrees: Do not nap later than 3 p.m.

“If you nap later than 3 p.m., then you run the risk of interfering with your regular bedtime,” Dr. Seti advised. “For that reason, you will want to make sure to get that nap in sometime prior to mid-afternoon, with a hard deadline of 3 p.m. Grabbing a few winks during lunchtime can be ideal.”

If you wake up from a nap late in the day, there are only a few hours left before you head back to bed again, which may not be enough time to become sleepy. You need the window of time between the nap and your evening bedtime to be long enough that you once again build up the necessary “sleep pressure” to fall asleep at night.

The Importance of Sleep Pressure

Building up sleep pressure over our awake hours is the key to being able to fall — and stay — asleep. “Throughout the day our body releases a chemical called adenosine,” sleep coach Annika Carroll wrote in an email. “Our levels of adenosine are lowest in the morning after a good night’s sleep. The longer we are awake, the higher the levels of adenosine in our bodies become.”

This is sleep pressure — as adenosine increases, it builds a sense of sleepiness and a need to go to bed. Only by sleeping do we release that pressure.

“For most people, the peak of adenosine is reached after 12 to 16 hours of being awake,” says Carroll. “This then signals the body to go to sleep. If you wake up groggy after a bad night’s sleep, it’s remaining adenosine in your system that has not been cleared out, giving you the tired feeling. By taking a power nap, we will reduce the amount of adenosine lightly. But in most cases, this will not affect nighttime sleep if the nap is kept short and earlier in the afternoon.”

Brevity Is the Soul of Naps

Across the board, sleep experts strongly suggest that daytime “power naps,” meant to refresh and invigorate, should be capped at 20-30 minutes, with 10-minute naps being the most likely to yield those brain-boosting, mood-lifting benefits without interfering with your nighttime sleep. Christina Pierpaoli Parker, PhD, postdoctoral fellow of Behavioral Medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), explained that 10-minute naps have been found to be the most rewarding.

“An experimental, repeated-measures study of 5 different napping conditions — including a no-nap control and naps lasting 5, 10, 20, and 30 minutes — found that the 10-minute nap produced the most benefits of all conditions,” Pierpaoli Parker said. “Compared to the no-nap condition, the 5-minute nap offered few material benefits while the 10-minute nap yielded immediate, appreciable, and durable improvements in subjective sleepiness, fatigue, and cognitive performance maintained for over two hours upon waking.”

If you sleep for more than 30 minutes, you run the risk of entering a deeper, slow-wave stage of sleep, which is harder to emerge from and leads to that sluggish, disoriented feeling post-nap. “[K]eeping naps to 10-20 minutes can restrict us to the more superficial, shallower stages of sleep — phases 1 and 2 — during which we can reap recovery benefits without experiencing the symptoms of sleep inertia percolating in deeper sleep stages.”

Consider Taking a Caffeine Nap

According to some experts, one way to ensure that you wake up from a midday nap feeling alert and energized is to quickly chug some caffeine right before lying down for the nap. That’s not a typo — this is an actual naptime hack that some folks swear by.

Author Daniel Pink even coined a term for this caffeine-plus-naptime maneuver: nappuccino. His nappuccino recipe calls for drinking a cup of coffee right before lying down for your nap, and then setting an alarm for 25 minutes. The caffeine will take about 20-25 minutes to work its way through your gastrointestinal tract and reach your bloodstream, so if you set an alarm to go off after that amount of time, you’ll be waking up right as the caffeine is kicking in, providing you with a nice boost of energy as soon as the nap is completed.

The reasoning boils down to that sleep-pressure chemical, adenosine. Caffeine works to block adenosine receptors, which is why you feel more alert when you drink caffeine — it’s preventing adenosine from building up sleep pressure and making you feel sleepy. Taking a short nap will clear out some of the adenosine that has already built up over the day, so when you wake up, the caffeine doesn’t have as much adenosine to block, allowing it to provide more stimulation.

Some research has found that caffeine naps are even better for maximizing alertness than either coffee or naps alone. (Note: Those with caffeine sensitivities should avoid this tactic, and once again, timing is everything, as drinking caffeine too late in the afternoon may disrupt your ability to fall asleep at night. If you want to try a caffeine nap, plan to wake up by or before 3 p.m.)

Make the Most of Your Naptime

Timing and duration of daytime naps are the two main factors in reaping the greatest benefits and minimizing the negative effects on nighttime sleep, but there are other naptime best practices that will help you optimize these precious little pockets of daytime rest.

  • Create a cool, dark, and quiet sleep environment. “Darkness promotes the production of melatonin — a drowsiness-promoting hormone — and light interrupts it,” said Pierpaoli Parker. “The thermal environment also regulates human sleep. When our core body temperature drops during a sleeping/napping episode (to initiate and maintain sleep, our core body needs to drop by 2-3 degrees Fahrenheit), the heat gets transferred/distributed to neighboring areas, including sheets.”
  • Set an alarm. To ensure that your naptime doesn’t creep into that too-long territory, set an alarm for 20 or 25 minutes and place the alarm across the room so that you’ll have to get out of bed to turn it off.
  • Be consistent. Studies have found that people who make a habit of napping at the same time every day are able to gain the most from naps, so if you can work it into your schedule, try committing to a consistent, daily nap routine.

Finally, don’t stress out too much about making sleep happen when you lie down for a nap. Trying to nap and not being able to drift off can be frustrating, but simply taking a break during the day to close your eyes and relax is beneficial in itself. “Don’t try and force yourself to sleep,” advised Carroll. “If you just lay there for 20 minutes and the alarm goes off and you didn’t sleep — that is totally fine. A nap is restful, whether you sleep or not.”

Photo by William Fortunato from Pexels

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