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What Are Naps?

Short Periods of Sleep May Recharge Your Mind

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Updated February 20, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

What Are Naps?
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For some, naps are a way of a life, a sign of laziness, a rare treat, or a needed break in the afternoon. But this common indulgence may be just the thing you need to compensate for a poor night’s sleep or alleviate building sleepiness. Research also suggests that taking naps may be an effective way to jump-start your memory and even improve productivity.

What Are Naps?

A nap is a short period of sleep that typically occurs during the day. Children may take frequent naps as their nighttime sleep is less consolidated. Generally, as we get older, we do most of our sleeping at night and sleep less during the day. Nevertheless, we typically have a strong desire to take a nap in the early afternoon (often between 1 and 3 p.m.). Some cultures have accommodated this desire to sleep by allowing structured midday breaks. For example, in the Spanish culture, "siestas" allow for a temporary closing of businesses in the early afternoon so people can rest.

Reasons to Nap

There are plenty of reasons to get a little extra sleep in the form of a nap. The most obvious reason for a nap is that you simply are not getting enough sleep at night. This may be a temporary inadequacy or a chronic issue. It may be helpful to determine how much sleep you need to see if this is a likely contributor.

Those who don't get enough sleep often have irregular sleep schedules. Better sleep guidelines recommend that you maintain regular bedtimes and wake-times, even through the weekends. But having a variable sleep schedule may mean that you are more likely to need a nap.

There may be other reasons that you have excessive daytime sleepiness and need a little extra sleep in the form of a nap. This could be due to any of the sleep disorders that can cause sleepiness, including sleep apnea, narcolepsy, and insomnia.

Finally, you may be more likely to nap simply because you have the opportunity to do so. If you lead a restricted lifestyle in which you aren't required to do something else with your time, you may simply choose to nap when you feel like it. For example, if you are elderly and live in a retirement community, you may decide to take an afternoon nap just because you can.

Napping Options and Benefits

A nap is a nap, but not every nap is quite the same. The biggest difference is how much time you spend napping, as this can have distinct consequences.

People will commonly say that they "power nap." The implication is that a short amount of time spent sleeping (perhaps on the order of 15 to 20 minutes) can revitalize and recharge. Assuming that you are able to fall asleep fairly quickly, you may be expected to enter into the lighter stages of sleep (either stage 1 or stage 2). This can be refreshing, but it may not give you the brain boost you desire.

More prolonged naps seem to have favorable consequences, improving memory and creativity. When naps last 30 to 60 minutes, you are more likely to enter into deep or slow-wave sleep. This sleep has been shown to enhance decision-making skills and improve your ability to memorize and recall information. It is thought that even longer naps (perhaps up to 90 minutes or more) can enhance creative problem solving.

Studies have consistently shown that naps can improve alertness and motor performance. Naps can furthermore reduce stress and even decrease your risk of heart disease. Some research has suggested that individuals who need a lot of sleep (even those who require naps during the day), may be at increased risk of early death, but the reason for this is not fully understood.

Recommendations to Improve Your Naps

If you choose to nap, there are a few things you can do to improve your ability to do so. First, follow standard better sleep guidelines regarding your sleep environment and schedule. It may be best to nap at the same time every day on a regular schedule. Most people can nap easiest between 1 and 3 p.m., so you might schedule some rest time then. Try to sleep in a cool, dark room (consider using an eye mask if you need to).

Why Not Nap?

If you find your naps are disrupting your ability to fall asleep at night and causing insomnia, naps may not be the thing for you. For those who don't have the luxury of sleeping in the middle of the day, you may choose to get more sleep at night by extending those hours in bed. If you have persistent excessive sleepiness, you may benefit from consuming some caffeine.

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