How to take the perfect afternoon nap
Naps: a science, an art, and a major boon to health.
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Ahhh, naps. Just thinking about them makes me smile. Maybe that’s because I’m writing this after a bad night’s sleep, but who doesn’t enjoy a nice afternoon doze? But it turns out that naps have benefits to memory and cognition, too. In one study researchers found that naps, paired with natural light exposure throughout the day, can improve mood.
But I know all too well the feeling of haziness that sometimes sets in after you wake up from a nap. These tips, compiled based on a conversation with sleep researcher Rebecca Spencer of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, can help you make the most of a short afternoon snooze and ensure you wake up feeling refreshed, not groggy.
Go ahead and nap—especially after a bad night’s sleep
There’s some stigma around the idea of adults taking naps, especially on a regular basis, even though as a species “we’re suited to nap at any age,” Spencer says. “There’s more of an essentialness to it in kids, but there are other times [in one’s life] when it becomes essential as well.”
The “essential” times Spencer is referring to are when you experience high “sleep pressure.” Sleep pressure happens when you maybe skimped or slept poorly the night before, and are consequently tired throughout the following day. If you’re feeling bleary-eyed, a midday snooze can help you literally sleep it off.
Avoid napping in your bedroom
With many of us working from home, the bedroom likely beckons you for a bout of daytime shuteye. I was surprised to hear that napping somewhere other than your cozy, shaded bedroom is for the best. After all, the recommendation across the board is to keep bed and bedroom activities limited to sleep and sex. But in the case of napping, it doesn’t make the cut. “I believe in distinguishing daytime sleep from nighttime sleep, and I think you'll be less likely to promote that grogginess after a nap when you need to get up if you aren't in such a [sleep-related] environment,” Spencer says.
What’s more, as you don’t want your body to think it’s nighttime, you should nap in a room with at least some natural light to help maintain your circadian rhythm. This refers to humans’ 24-hour clock that’s largely based on natural light, and dictates the release of hormones that make us feel drowsy in the evening, versus awake throughout the day.
Your best napping plan: dozing off on a couch or in a comfortable chair with the curtains or blinds at least partially open. Instead of undoing your entire bed, grab a throw blanket and pillow off the living room couch, or consider curling up with a weighted blanket, which can add a soothing hug-like feel to your siesta.
Wake up gradually and gently
Rather than being startled awake by a blaring alarm, put yourself in an environment conducive to gradually waking up. “Instead [of being in bed], being in maybe a room where roommates or family are coming in and going out is actually not a bad thing,” Spencer says. “If you wake up because if you kind of gradually jostle by a set of noises in the environment, it’s probably preferable to the sudden burst of an alarm clock.”
If you live alone, consider checking out an app that allows you to slowly increase the volume of the alarm to gently bring you out of sleep. Based on user reviews, Gentle Wakeup for Android, is a good choice, while iOS users can try Alarm Clock Sleep Sounds Plus, a free, well-reviewed option. Both apps allow you to fine-tune your alarm with different sounds and volumes to make waking up an easier process.
Aside from being straight-up more pleasant than being jolted awake, waking up gradually can help decrease grogginess. Going from a deep sleep stage to wakefulness is a big shift for your body and brain to make, says Spencer. Gradual wake-ups allow your body to switch from deeper sleep stages into a lighter sleep stage before fully waking. This transition makes it all easier, and your post-nap self will thank you.
Nap when your body tells you to—just not too late in the day
You’ve heard it once and you’re hearing it again: A nap too close to bedtime can throw off your whole sleep cycle. When it comes to napping, you want to find the right time for you based on individual factors like when you wake up in the morning and your circadian rhythm. The circadian rhythm dips at night, which helps you feel tired, but you also have a small dip sometime in the afternoon. “When the middle of the day is varies on your own circadian clock—if you wake up later in the morning, then your mid-day distance is a little later,” Spencer says. Regardless of exactly when you wake, we all have “a little propensity to nap in the afternoon,” she says.
Spencer says there’s no magic number or universal standard when it comes to how late is too close to bedtime—as with everything sleep, it’s individual and dependent on your schedule and patterns. Nonetheless, her personal recommendation is to curb napping and be awake by 3 or 4 p.m. so you can get to bed at a reasonable nighttime hour. Other experts’ recommendations agree, with most suggesting a nap during the circadian dip we experience between 1 and 3 p.m., but not later.
Allot the right amount of time to nap
If you’ve previously napped only to wake up groggy and have since sworn off the practice, consider giving it another go. Naps are somewhat of an art form, it turns out. This wouldn’t be a true sleep article if I didn’t say this at least once: There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to naps.
The conventional 10 to 20 minutes isn’t sufficient for most people, Spencer says. “If somebody said I'm going to give myself 15 minutes to nap every day I'd be like, well that's nice, but you're never going to get to sleep because it's going to take most people [that long just to fall asleep], unless you're extremely sleep deprived,” she says.
On the flipside, you can accidentally sleep too much, or “over-nap,” as Spencer puts it, and harm your future sleep. “If I were to be giving somebody kind of a prescription for [napping]... it’s 30 to 40 minutes of sleep,” she says. But that excludes the time it might take you to fall asleep, so she suggests giving yourself an hour in total, so that you have time to relax and actually drift off, so that you can benefit from the duration.
Consider drinking coffee right before a doze
Ironically, drinking coffee immediately before taking a nap could give you a boost when you wake up. “It's not something that's been really tested but it makes sense that you could drink a cup of coffee, and then hopefully that caffeine is waking you up as you metabolize it,” Spencer says.
Alternatively, if you’re really worried about feeling groggy, waking up with a fresh brew at the ready could help you prepare to jump back into the day. A programmable coffee maker, like the Breville Precision Brewer is a great option with a timer feature. Set it up so your steaming cup coincides with whenever you intend to wake up (who knows, maybe the smell alone will help rouse you). Just make sure you don’t drink coffee so late in the day that you disrupt your nightly sleep. One study found that drinking an 8-ounce cup of coffee six hours before bed can still disrupt your sleep. The researchers suggested limiting caffeine intake to prior to 5 p.m. After six hours, about half of the caffeine is still in circulation in your body, so you could argue that stopping consumption earlier in the day would be even better.
Adjust your nightly sleep if you want to nap on a daily basis
For most people, naps are used as an occasional tool to get through the day after a bad night’s sleep—not something that’s part of a daily routine. If you generally have low sleep pressure, as in your meeting your overnight sleep needs, but crave a routine nap during your afternoon circadian dip, you probably need to adjust your nightly sleep to balance.
This is especially true if you notice your midday snoozes becoming longer and longer. “If I become a habitual napper and every day I nap, let's say 90 minutes in the middle of the day, overall I'm probably going to need to take away a little bit of my overnight sleep [and] reduce my expectations of how long I should sleep at night.”
That’s why Spencer recommends naps should last 90 minutes or less, because they should be a supplement, not a substitute to nighttime rest. Spencer isn’t a proponent of excessively divvying up your sleep—say sleeping four hours in the day and four hours at night—because it decreases your brain’s efficiency. “Every time you go through a sleep cycle, you're gonna pass that information on to the next sleep cycle so your brain can keep working on it. If I instead do a sleep cycle [wherein] I'm awake and then go back to sleep, and then I'm awake, [the brain’s] processing is less efficient,” she says. So while shorter naps are a-okay, and even recommended as needed, splitting your sleep into two separate events isn’t in your body or mind’s best interest.
With that in mind, have at it. Take that afternoon snooze—you deserve it, and your body and brain will thank you.