To Nap or Not?

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Every day, I return to my dorm and struggle with the same question- do I succumb to the temptation to take a nap or not?  When I wake up in the morning, I always tell myself, “Don’t worry, it’s only two hours until you can go back to sleep.”  Which is kind of sad.  However, when I return to my dorm, I find myself embroiled in a very difficult debate.  I need to catch up on sleep, but is it worth losing the time to do homework? What if it becomes a habit? And most importantly, how beneficial ARE naps?

The National Sleep Foundation states that 85% of mammalian species tend to sleep for a short amount of time throughout the day. Essentially, they like to take naps rather than sleep for long periods of time the way we do.  However, the National Sleep Foundation also states that humans are in the minority because they split their day into two parts, one designated for sleeping, one for activity.  Since the young and the elderly tend to take naps, the National Sleep foundation does not know if this is the natural sleep pattern of humans or if it is one that has evolved because of society.  In fact, sleep historian A. Roger Ekirch argues that there are records showing that humans of the past would sleep, wake up in the middle of the night, do some work, then go back to sleep until morning, and this pattern was changed according to the effects of society.  This seems like a reasonable assumption considering that many people find themselves naturally waking up in the middle of the night.

For many years, both society and science believed that napping was bad for you.  Society placed stigmas of laziness on those caught napping, and people believed that naps interfered with nighttime sleep.  However, with scientists’ society of skepticism and criticism, people soon found conflicting results, and many different studies on napping have been done.

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There are several different types of napping according to the National Sleep Foundation.  The first is planned napping which is when you nap before you are actually sleepy.  This would generally occur when someone knows that they will be up late and need to store up energy.  The next type of napping is emergency napping.  The National Sleep Foundation describes it, saying it “occurs when you are suddenly very tired and cannot continue with the activity you were originally engaged in.”  So basically, what happens when you’re lying on you bed, reading a textbook, and find yourself waking up an hour later with a book as a pillow.  The final type of napping is habitual napping- napping at the same time every day.

After comparing several studies, the National Sleep Foundation concluded that naps are actually beneficial for most people.  It recommends 10-20 minute naps because ones that last longer can leave people with sleep inertia which would impair any activity that took place immediately after.  However, it also refers to a study at NASA that found that 40 minute naps also improved performance of pilots and astronauts by 34% and alertness by 100%.  It did not provide the details of the study, so it is not clear how they tested for alertness and performance of how long after they tested.

An article found on the National Institutes of Health website called “The effects of napping on cognitive functioning” stated that brief naps of five to ten minutes show benefits immediately afterwards which last for about one to three hours.  Additionally, it found that naps longer than 30 minutes often create impairment during the period directly afterwards, but the improvements in cognitive performance last for a longer period than those that came from short naps.  While I can see how longer naps can have a negative effect, it is hard to believe five minutes would do anything, so I continued to search for the perfect nap length.

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Harvard Health also put out an article on napping (although Andrew might look at their slogan with skepticism since it is “Trusted advice for a healthier life,” and we are being taught to not take anything for granted).  It says that there is a pattern of wakefulness called the circadian pattern which includes a hump in the afternoon.  I would guess that my hump is during this class, which is why I am sitting there with coffee to help me focus.  However, Harvard Health said that a study done by British researchers in 2008 found that naps are more effective than caffeine.  Which is unlucky for me.  Like the other sources, Harvard provides tips on how to nap most effectively.  It advises finding a cool, dark place to help reduce the time it takes to fall asleep.  Routine is good, as well, because it helps you to get used to falling asleep and waking up so that you can do it quicker.

When we got to Penn State, our mentors told us that, to nap effectively, you should drink caffeine right before to help reduce the sleep inertia after a nap.  Harvard mentions this method and says that this theory is based on a small Japanese study, but it also says it is not positive that this is the best approach.  While Harvard’s suggested sleep time is slightly different than the others (20-30 minutes), it is relatively the same.

If one wanted to find what was the best nap time, I think that a rather simple experiment could be conducted. Randomly assign people to different groups- no napping, 10-15 minute naps, 15-20, 25-30, etc.  Have them all take their naps at the same time unless they are part of the control group.  After they wake up, give them some sort of test for alertness and performance and then repeat the test every hour until they go to sleep at night.  While this experiment, due to randomization, might be able to apply to humans in general, it is important to consider that every person is different, so it would not apply to everyone.

Finally, Harvard addresses the topic of guilt when they advise people not to feel guilty about napping.  They say that researchers at Harvard “and elsewhere” have studied naps and found that sleep “improves learning, memory, and creative thinking.”  So while you probably shouldn’t use a nap as an excuse not to do work, if you really need to catch up on some Z’s, choose to go with a 20 minute nap and don’t sweat the lost time too much.

2 thoughts on “To Nap or Not?

  1. Sarah Rose Peterson

    I love taking naps. Since I have an early morning class, I usually always take a mid-day nap. Even though napping does take time away from more productive activities such as homework and studying, napping is also beneficial because it helps me focus the rest of the day.
    If you wanted to find the best nap time in your described experiment, you could have the participants take a nap each day of the week with each nap per day varying in time. After each nap, the participants would fill out a survey based on how they felt after waking up from their nap. I would be very interested to find out the results of this study because no one wants to wake up groggy from a nap!

  2. Claire E Going

    Hi Giana,

    I find that when I take a 20-minute nap directly after my classes in the morning to rest and reboot, I am a lot more productive. I am exhausted by going to classes and the nap helps me take all of the information I just learned in those three classes and store the important parts for longer-term memory. This is probably because I get into bed around 2 a.m. after completing all of my homework, and then get up at 8 a.m. However, I find that if I take an hour long nap or a two hour long nap, I feel sluggish and don’t feel like going back to start my homework for the day or go to the gym. The 15 to 20-minute nap helps me to rest and then start again, so I am in favor of napping. Everyone is different and napping can affect everyone in different ways. I am convinced that if I got the appropriate number of hours of sleep at night that I would not need a nap, but college is hard and sleep is scarce when one has more important things to get done. I found an article where the hypothesis of napping being beneficial is in line with yours. The article mentions boosting cognitive level and energy level, similarly to yours. Great article!

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