What’s in a nap? If you’re doing it right, napping brings a bunch of benefits: improved learning ability, memory, alertness, physical and mental stamina, and relief from stress. To avoid grogginess and other possible side effects, you need to be strategic about napping. This flowchart helps you figure out whether a nap will work for you or against you.
How can a nap benefit me?
Napping can improve your performance and alertness. It can help you learn more, remember what you’re studying, and feel better.
Napping improves learning and memory:
- A 10-minute nap significantly improved alertness and cognitive performance in young adults, according to a 2001 study in the Journal of Sleep Research.
- In a 2010 study in Sleep and Breathing, college students with GPAs of 3.5 and higher were much more likely to be nappers than were their peers with lower GPAs.
- Napping for 90 minutes improves young adults’ capacity to learn, a small 2010 study found.
- Napping is generally more effective than caffeine, especially for memory improvement, according to a 2008 study in Behavioral Brain Research.
Improved tolerance and decision making
In a 2015 study, participants who napped for an hour in the afternoon were better able to tolerate frustration and less prone to impulsive decision making than were the non-nappers, according to a study in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.
A 45- to 60-minute nap reduced the effects of stress in students in a 2011 study in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine. The students recovered from a stressor more quickly than stressed students who didn’t nap.
Better physical performance
Athletes had quicker reaction time and performed better after a one-hour nap, according to a 2013 study in the Journal of Shangqiu Normal University.
When should I nap?
The magic time to nap is early afternoon: 1–3 p.m. Problem is, most of you get home later than 3 p.m. on school days, and you’re napping until 7 p.m. or later, according to a recent Student Health 101 survey.
Napping later than 3 p.m. could set you up for a wakeful night. On school days, “Keep the nap to 20–30 minutes and as close [to when you get] home as possible,” says Dr. Shelley Hershner, director of the Collegiate Sleep Disorder Clinic at the University of Michigan. She suggests following up your nap with a nutritious snack and a study session.
Can’t nap? Here are more ways to pick up your energy after 3 p.m.:
- Snack on vegetables, fruit, beans, and nuts. The nutrients in these food groups are natural energy boosters, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
- Drink water or herbal tea. Dehydration can cause fatigue, according to dietitians at the University of Michigan. From mid-afternoon onward, avoid caffeine; that will keep you up at night, too.
- Don’t just sit there. A few jumping jacks or yoga moves, or a quick walk, will help you feel more alive. Even a 15-minute walk can give you an energy boost, according to the National Health Service in the UK.
How long should I nap?
You need at least 10 minutes; even brief naps can result in measurable performance improvements, research shows. “Did you know that a six-minute nap increased subjects’ memorization of a list of words by 11 percent? Hey, most of us would be happy to take a letter grade higher, especially for a 10-minute investment in time,” writes Dr. Hershner. Allow a few extra minutes for falling asleep.
The optimal length of a nap is disputed. Check out these options, then see what works for you.
Up to half an hour
Napping for 10–30 minutes gets you some brain benefits without inducing grogginess, so how do you wake up on time? Try the Power Nap app for iOS, with its timer and relaxing sleep sounds, or simply use your phone’s alarm clock to help you wake up. If you need more help falling asleep and you have an Android, you can also try the Power Nap with Andrew Johnson app (see how a student reviewed it below).
Up to an hour
Some evidence suggests we can nap for up to an hour without feeling groggy. In a 2012 study, naps of 40 and 60 minutes allowed for more slow-wave (deep) sleep and led to bigger performance improvements than 20-minute naps did, according to Chronobiology International.
Up to 90 minutes
A typical sleep cycle (incorporating deep sleep and REM sleep) takes about 90 minutes. In studies, naps of 60 or 90 minutes have resulted in greater benefits for visual and memory tasks compared to shorter naps.
Be wary of napping beyond 90 minutes. If you nap longer, “it’s harder to wake up and leaves you groggy because you’ve interrupted a sleep cycle,” says Nancy H. Rothstein, director of corporate sleep programs at Circadian, a workplace performance and safety consultancy based in Massachusetts.
Where should I nap?
An ideal nap environment looks like this:
- You can lie down; it’s harder to fall asleep when you’re sitting up.
- You have a blanket nearby in case you get cold, but you won’t get so warm and comfy that it’s a struggle to get up.
- You can darken the room or use an eye mask.
- You won’t be disturbed by noise; if necessary, use ear plugs, headphones, or a noise machine.
What can lack of sleep do to me?
Skimping on sleep seriously affects our performance—and makes us oblivious to just how poorly we’re doing. That’s according to a 2003 study in which researchers at the University of Pennsylvania restricted people’s sleep. Even as the participants became less able to sustain their attention and succeed at memory tasks, they insisted they had adjusted to the shorter sleep hours, according to the journal Sleep.
If you’re expecting to be up later than usual that night, planned napping—taking a nap before you get sleepy—may help. Remember, though, that all-nighters are highly disruptive to your body and mind. Sleep-deprived cramming is unlikely to help you perform better on tests, research shows.
What if I’m tired while driving?
Never drive sleepy—this is critical. Sleep-deprived drivers are as dangerous as drunk drivers, according to a study in Nature. Napping improves our alertness and reaction times. Pilots who nap during long-haul flights are better at landing planes, according to a classic study in the Journal of Sleep Research.
If you feel sleepy while driving…
Pull into a safe, well-lit area, such as a rest stop or restaurant parking lot and take a 15- to 20-minute nap, says the National Sleep Foundation.
What should I do if I’m having trouble sleeping at night?
Do you have insomnia?
Insomnia is difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep at night, accompanied by daytime exhaustion that is not explained by lifestyle and behavioral factors. It can be related to stress, transitions, psychiatric conditions, medications, or substance use. Most people experience insomnia at some point in their lives, according to the Mayo Clinic.
If you’re finding it difficult to fall asleep at night, a nap will likely make that worse.
Behavioral changes can help, such as being physically active during the day and avoiding stimulating activities (including screen use) at bedtime.
If you think you are experiencing insomnia, talk with your health care provider. Cognitive behavioral therapy is a proven treatment for insomnia and can be effectively delivered in person with a therapist or online, according to the Journal of Psychology Research and Behavioral Management (2011).
Students say: What napping does for me
“It makes me feel relaxed and comfortable. It’s the happiest moment of each day where I can forget the reality and appreciate life.”
—Lucia, sophomore, Boston, Massachusetts
“[Napping makes me feel] awake and ready for new tasks when I feel worn out.”
—Marie, senior, San Ramon, California
“I like napping because I get pretty tired and stressed from the school day and it helps me relax.”
—Lisa, senior, Concord, Massachusetts
“I feel happy and full of energy after a nap.”
—Khalil, Simsbury, Connecticut
“Short naps can be a good energy boost.”
—Helen, sophomore, Boston, Massachusetts
Sophomore, violinist, and student in Boston, Massachusetts
"If you’re in need of a quick nap, this app can help you get there. Simply put on headphones, press the play button, and let the calming music and soothing voice lull you to sleep."
It definitely can help sleep come easier if you’re tired and stressed out.
While being able to fall asleep is great and all, I wouldn’t quite call the app “entertaining.”
The music and voice combination may work for some, but others may find the voice too distracting to nap.
Shelley Hershner, MD, assistant professor of Neurology and director of the Collegiate Sleep Disorder Clinic at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Nancy H. Rothstein, director, corporate sleep programs, Circadian, Massachusetts.
Sharon Sevier, PhD, chair, board of directors, American School Counselor Association.
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