The truth about naps
James Wilson, AKA The Sleep Geek, shares the truth about naps.
Who doesn’t appreciate a disco nap from time to time, but naps are a very nuanced issue, that are an important tool in my box of tactics and tips to help people sleep better, but, unfortunately for poor sleepers they rarely work. They can improve productivity and alertness, but, they also, for a large number of people, make sleep at night worse. Naps don’t improve poor sleep or insomnia. Naps help sleep deprivation and that is a different thing.
How do naps make sleep worse?
They make sleep worse because they reduce sleep pressure, making it harder to go to sleep and sustain sleep. For poor sleepers this means our sleep at night gets worse, impacting on our mental and physical health, we nap in the day to reduce the impact of sleep deprivation to feel more alert and be more productive but this approach gets us into a cycle of failure and despair with our sleep never improving.
I work with hundreds if not thousands of poor sleepers a month and I have seen people struggling to improve sleep, whilst napping in the day because they have been told it will help. I have worked with professional footballers who have described themselves as poor sleepers because they are unable to nap during the day, as they were told everybody should be napping. As poor sleepers, we deserve advice that takes into account our experience of sleep as an individual, not a one size fits all, poorly thought out, patronising approach that makes us feel like we are the problem.
Sleeping is very individual
Naps can be an important tool for the likes of shift workers and some sportspeople. The work I do at Beingwell is about supporting people in understanding who they are as sleepers, and helping them to decide whether napping will help or hinder their overall health and support them in meeting their sleep need.
Culturally we should be encouraging organisations to create more flexible working days that allow people to get the sleep they need not creating nap rooms or pushing an idea that it doesn't matter how you sleep at night a nap will solve it all. Experts and company’s shouting about the virtue of this approach need to be challenged and need to understand the damage they are doing to people’s wellbeing.
A society that understands the negatives and positives of naps, that supports people in getting the sleep they need, whatever their sleep type, their sleep need, or their work patterns, is my dream.
My top tips on understanding naps better:
1. If we are sleeping poorly at night and napping in the day, then naps will be contributing to the problem. Removing naps is unlikely to make our sleep issues go away, but working with a sleep professional to understand who you are as a sleeper and to understand what changes you can make to your behaviours, mindset and sleep environment will.
2. Get the duration right. Research shows 10-20 minutes is about the right amount of time to get the benefits of a nap. My advice would be to set your alarm for about 30-40 minutes and if you find yourself waking feeling groggy then reduce it slightly.
3. The time you have naps during the day is also important. Earlier in the day, you are more likely to have light sleep or REM sleep, whilst later in the day, you may fall into deep or slow-wave sleep which makes it more likely the nap will impact our sleep at night. Try not to nap after 2 pm to avoid this.
4. It has been suggested having a cup of tea or coffee just before a nap can be beneficial as it gives the double hit of the caffeine (as it takes about 30 minutes to start to metabolise) and the nap.
5. Plan your naps. The people I work with who do nap, such as shift workers or sportspeople, get far more from them by keeping to a regular schedule. This means our body gets used to the rhythm of having them on a regular basis and the person taking naps finds it easier to go to sleep.
To sum up: We hope that this blog has cleared up some of the myths and rumours surrounding the popular topic of napping. We're not totally against napping. In some cases, it can be a very useful tool to use, but it really depends on our individual lifestyle and who we are as sleepers.