Napping during the day | Get the most out of your midday nap

We all love a good night’s sleep, but for some of us it isn’t enough. When done properly, napping during the day can help improve energy and concentration levels. Unfortunately, it can also make it harder for us to fall asleep later in the day.

Physiology Regional Lead Luke Cousins explores how taking a quick power nap can help you recharge and feel more alert for longer. 

Key takeaways

Is napping the same as sleeping?

A nap is designed to give you a quick recharge during the day. If you’re groggy, tired, and finding it hard to concentrate, a midday nap might help wake you up.

Napping should never be used as a substitute for sleep though. When we drift off at night, our brain moves through four stages of sleep. When we nap, we don’t have time for this, meaning we are unable to reap the benefits we’d get from a deep and lengthy sleep.

The health benefits of napping

Some people swear by napping, whilst others claim that if they sleep during the day, they won’t be able to drift off at night.

Whether you love a midday snooze or not, taking a brief nap does have some proven health and performance benefits, including improving our:

  • Energy levels
  • Reaction time and alertness
  • Ability to relax
  • Fatigue levels
  • Memory and recall
  • Mood
  • Concentration levels
  • Cognitive functioning

How long is too long?

Not all naps are made equal. In fact, the sweet spot for a nap is around 20 minutes. 

If you’re napping for longer, you should aim to stay asleep for around 90 minutes to avoid interrupting your deep sleep cycle.

Most people find that 90 minutes is too long and that it means they can’t sleep at night. If this sounds like you, try getting a power nap in around midday.

This won’t have a huge impact on your circadian rhythm and you should wake up feeling refreshed and rejuvenated.

If you work shifts, the closer you nap to waking up, the better. The general rule of thumb is to avoid napping within 8 hours of bedtime so you can still get a good night’s sleep.

When is the best time to take a nap?

The best time to take a nap is around midday. This is because our concentration and alertness tend to dip around lunchtime.

Research indicates that this may be caused by our natural circadian rhythm (body clock), or influenced by behavioural factors like eating a big meal at lunch.

Common nap times

  • After lunch
  • On your lunch break
  • After work
  • In the afternoon

Tips for a great nap

Structure it alongside your sleep

If naps help you, make sure you stay consistent.

Napping at the same time every day can help regulate your body's internal clock, which can improve overall sleep quality. It reinforces a more predictable sleep/wake schedule, which makes falling asleep at night and waking up in the morning easier.

What to avoid

  • Nicotine
  • Alcohol
  • Caffeine

In the bed or on the sofa?

For some people, the bedroom is the best place to nap because it’s a comfortable place to sleep. For others, good sleep hygiene means the bed needs to remain unoccupied until night-time.

If you can drift off straight away, napping in bed isn’t a problem. If you can’t, opt for the sofa to prevent your brain associating the bed with restlessness and difficulty falling asleep.

Keep it short and sweet

As we’ve said previously, the sweet spot for a nap is around 20 minutes.

If you want a longer nap, try and stay asleep for around 90 minutes.

Any amount in between will mean you wake up during the “deep” phase of your sleep cycle. This can leave you feeling groggy, tired, and irritable.

Avoid tossing and turning

If you’re napping, commit to it.

Avoid laying in bed on your phone or tossing and turning trying to fall asleep. If you haven’t drifted off after five minutes, get up and try a different relaxation technique. Great alternatives to a midday nap include meditation and yoga.

A good tip is to carefully make your bed and optimise your bedroom for sleep when you wake up. This means that when it comes to taking a nap at lunch, you’re entering a dark and calming environment.

Can napping ever be a bad thing?

Napping can disrupt our natural sleep cycle and make drifting off at night difficult. If we get all our sleep during the day, our body can’t shut off at night because it thinks we’re well rested.

Relying on napping to compensate for poor quality night-time sleep can be a sign of bad sleep hygiene or an underlying problem. If this sounds like you, it's important to address the root cause of poor sleep instead of relying on naps as a short-term fix.

Can napping make you more tired?

Napping can cause what is labelled “sleep inertia”.

Sleep inertia refers to the dizzy, drowsy, or groggy feeling you experience when you wake up. This is why you might feel more tired after a nap than before one.

We’re likely to feel the effects more if we wake up during a deep sleep cycle. This is why taking a short nap and avoiding drifting into deep sleep is optimal during the day.

The severity and duration of sleep inertia will vary from person to person and depend on several factors. These include the depth and the duration of your sleep. Sleep inertia is most common after waking from a nap that was either too long or taken at the wrong time of the day.

Do we nap more as we age?

Yes, we do.

As we age, we typically need the same amount of sleep as we did when we were younger. Older adults tend to go to sleep earlier and wake up earlier, making a nap around lunchtime more appealing.

Older adults also find it easier to nap during the day. This could be because of a less structured lifestyle and weakened circadian rhythm.

Research indicates this might also be because maintaining good quality sleep at night gets harder as we age, making napping an attractive option the following day.

Last updated Wednesday 13 March 2024

First published on Monday 11 March 2024