Naps: Ideal Length, Benefits and Reducing Sleep Need

How Long Should you Nap For?

Napping is a bit of a lost art in today’s society, but there is no question that most of us have something to gain from a little midday sleep. The optimal nap length can vary from person to person for any number of reasons–age, career, lifestyle, schedule, etc. However, the general consensus is that either a short power nap (10-20 minutes) or a full sleep cycle (about 90 minutes) is best.

Below I’ll explain why this is the case, take a look at the benefits of napping, and help you figure out what works best for you.

Benefits of Napping

Naps enhance performance, both mental and physical. For athletes, things like reaction time improve, and in the corporate world your cognitive abilities are heightened. Additional nap benefits include:

  • Better mood
  • Increased alertness
  • Greater ability to learn
  • Relaxation
  • Reduce fatigue
  • Lower nightly sleep need
  • Help prevent high blood pressure

Power Nap Time

Most of us trend towards quick power naps, simply because they are easier to fit into our daily routine. How long should a power nap be? A 2006 study published by the Sleep Research Society found that 10-minute naps improved the participants’ subjective sleepiness and cognitive performance, and were the “most effective afternoon nap duration” of the lengths they examined. Naps that were 20 minutes long produced similar results as well.

The National Sleep Foundation also states that “most people feel refreshed after a nap that lasts approximately 20 minutes.” Why is a 20-minute nap good for you? When you first fall asleep, your body goes through a stage of light sleep. Naps that are 20 minutes or less tend to keep you in this stage, which makes it much easier to wake up without feeling groggy.

On the other hand, napping for less than 10 minutes is usually not enough to see any of the benefits of sleep, so the best power nap time is considered to be 10-20 minutes. If you only have a few minutes available to rest, you’re probably better off practicing mindfulness or meditation instead of trying to nap.

Is a 30-Minute Nap Worth It? 

In this case, you may actually end up feeling more tired and less alert than before you went to sleep. Following light sleep your body enters deep sleep (also known as slow wave sleep, when your brain waves slow down), and being woken during this stage leads to sleep inertia, a state of sluggishness and disorientation. The effects of sleep inertia are even worse when you are sleep deprived, which is likely the reason you’re taking a nap in the first place.

However, you will not see any of the cognitive benefits of sleeping from a short nap that only includes light sleep. In order for that to happen, you need to get at least a few minutes of deep sleep. Additionally, research has shown that naps which include deep sleep but not REM sleep will improve procedural memory tasks (physical things like performing a specific activity), but will not improve declarative memory tasks (mental things like remembering something and repeating it back). Typically you have to be asleep for about 90 minutes in order to reach REM sleep.

Why Is a 90-Minute Nap Good?

For most people, 90 minutes is the length of a full sleep cycle, which allows you to spend time in each stage of sleep (light, deep and REM, in that order). If you are sleep deprived (meaning you failed to get all the sleep your body needed the night before), napping for 90 minutes and cycling through every stage of sleep is the best way to feel rested and rejuvenated afterwards.

Is a 2-Hour Nap Too Long?

Not necessarily, depending on how sleep deprived you are or how much your body may need to recover from physical activity. However, if you nap for much longer than this there’s a good chance it’s going to disturb your circadian rhythm. What you do not want to happen is to have trouble falling asleep at night because you napped for too long during the day. If your nighttime sleep is negatively affected by your nap, you won’t be any better off the next morning.

What is the Best Nap Time for Me?

Are you wondering “How long should I nap to wake up refreshed?” The answer is most likely around 90 minutes, but given how hard that can be to fit into our busy lives, opting for a 10-20 minute power nap is an appealing alternative.

The time of day you plan to nap is also important to consider. For example, taking a long nap in the evening close to bed time will almost certainly make it difficult for you to fall asleep later on. The best time to take a nap is usually in the mid afternoon (your body temperature drops around then and it also produces more melatonin) prior to about 3 pm, depending on what your normal schedule is. Ideally you should nap as close as possible to the mid point between your usual wake and bed times.

Unfortunately for many of us, getting in even a 10-minute afternoon nap is often impossible during the typical work day. If you can’t nap, try going outside for a bit and letting the sunlight hit your body instead. This will inhibit production of melatonin and help you feel energized.

Can You Catch Up on Sleep by Napping?

Yes! Meeting your nightly sleep need is often a difficult task. A nap during the day (regardless of how long it is) helps reduce the amount of sleep your body requires at night.

Based on previous sleep and strain you have accumulated, fitness trackers like the WHOOP calculate exactly how much sleep you should get each night in order to optimize your recovery the next morning. For example, when you take a nap, the WHOOP Sleep Coach incorporates it into the equation and adjusts accordingly the time it recommends you spend in bed that night.