The Anatomy of a Perfect Nap



I haven’t always been a great sleeper, but I’ve always been a great napper!



There are a lot of expert nappers in my family. Some can nap on a hardwood floor in the middle of a busy room. Others prefer to fall asleep 10 minutes into an action movie, complete with bobbing heads and gaping mouths. The really hardcore family members will change into their pyjamas and get into their bed for their naps.


I am more of a "grab a cozy blanket and nap on a comfortable couch" kinda girl, and as you can see, I come by my Nap Queen title honestly!



BENEFITS OF NAPPING


Naps are great for restoring energy, getting rid of headaches, and taking a break from a mentally stimulating (or physically demanding) activity. I also love being warm and cozy, so a nap in a snuggly blanket is the perfect way to warm up during our cold Ontario winters.


Before my sleep habits improved, I used naps as a way to deal with exhaustion and fatigue. I could be out for a good two-to-three hours if I didn’t set an alarm, and I didn’t realize until I became educated in sleep sciences that my naps were a sign of a sleep issue more than “a nice way to take a little break.”


Napping is one topic I get asked about often, and every sleep expert you ask will give you a slightly different answer. In fact, some will give you a completely different answer! I’ve read sleep books that forbid naps, and consider sleeping during the day a detriment to a healthy sleep cycle.


My stance on the topic is this: Controlled naps are amazing when paired with healthy sleep habits.


Here is my recipe for the perfect nap...



1. ASSESS THE NEED


Are you wanting a break to recharge your batteries, mentally of physically, or is it because you slept horribly last night and you can’t continue to function without one? This is important, because as you’ve heard me say before, you can’t catch-up on missed sleep. If you feel like you desperately need to sleep during the day, then please take a look at your sleep habits, because you most likely need more sleep at night. If you nap because you’re over-tired, skip the nap and go to bed a bit earlier that evening. Getting your sleep-wake cycle back on track is much better than satisfying your temporary need for sleep and then not being able to sleep later on.


*Obviously, if the need to nap is urgent to being able to function safely, or it’s your only break for several hours, please do it. I am assuming that most of my readers are not in the medical profession, driving trucks all night, or working night shifts.



2. CHOOSE THE RIGHT TIME OF DAY


This one is a little more involved, but try to stay with me, because it’s interesting.


Our homeostatic sleep drive, or the tiredness factor, refers to our drive to fall asleep. Our “sleep drive” is affected by how long we’ve been awake, and it operates as a kind of timer or counter. Your sleep drive is satisfied most in the earliest stages of sleep, which can happen quickly after falling asleep. Once your sleep drive has been satisfied, you’re going to wake up, resulting in a low sleep drive for bedtime later.


The goal is to nap early enough in the day that it satisfies your temporary sleep drive without negatively affecting your sleep at night. As a general rule, you should be waking-up from your nap at least 4 hours before you go to bed that night. Early afternoon, around 1-2pm is great if you are able to nap at that time. (Unfortunately, pulling a George Costanza and sleeping under your desk is frowned upon at some companies.)


Pay attention to your sleep drive in the evening. If you find you’re not sleepy enough at night, move your nap to earlier in the day.



3. CONTROL THE LENGTH


The aspect that comes into play here is the 90-minute sleep cycle. If you nap long enough to enter into the deep sleep stages, which happens about 45 minutes after falling asleep, you will wake up feeling groggy, disoriented, and probably ready to fall back asleep. Waking up in the middle of deep sleep, especially REM sleep, makes for a nap that is more tiring than refreshing.


If you are one of the lucky people in the world who can take a power nap of under 20 minutes, I salute you. I am not one of those people. If you can nap for this length of time, take advantage of that skill!


If you are like me and need longer than 20 minutes, set an alarm for either 45 minutes or 90 minutes. It has to do with sleep cycles again… a 45-minute nap will give you enough time to recharge without entering into deep sleep. A 90-minute nap will give you a complete sleep cycle (approximately) without waking up feeling worse than before you fell asleep.


4. PICK THE PERFECT SPOT


Not everyone can fall asleep sitting straight up in a chair and consider it a restful nap like my dad can! Some of us need to lie down on a soft surface with a pillow and a blanket. If you’re in need of a nap, make it a good one. Remove distractions and relocate to a more comfortable location, if needed. It’s okay to go to your bedroom and lie down in your bed. If you have a favorite “napping couch” like I do (doesn’t everyone!?) that’s great too. If your nap is uncomfortable and your gaping mouth and drool keeps waking you up, stop fighting it and go lie down!



CONCLUSION: NAPS CAN BE AMAZING!


Naps are one of my favourite things in the world, and always will be. The more I learn about sleep and the mystery that still surrounds a lot of it, the more I choose to believe that we all sleep differently, and what works for one doesn’t necessarily work for all.


Experiment with your naps, and embrace them! What better way to take a break from reality and come up with your best work after you wake up stronger and smarter!? There's a reason the most successful companies in the world encourage their employees to take quick naps during the workday, and even install napping rooms in their office buildings.


I am constantly suggesting group naps when I'm in meetings. I have yet to have any success, but now that we're all here chatting about how great naps are....Anyone!?