5 Mistakes You’re Making While Napping (Yes, Really) — and How to Fix Them

published May 20, 2021
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Welcome to Restival Season, Apartment Therapy’s series about slowing down, sleeping more, and relaxing however you can — no fancy wristbands needed.

Do you ever find yourself wishing you could travel back to your childhood and just take all those naps you probably refused at the time? Yeah, same. But there’s some good news: Naps aren’t just for kids. In fact, they’re pretty helpful for adults as well.

In addition to being super restorative on a particularly tiresome day, naps can provide a plethora of health benefits. Dr. Shelby Harris, a licensed clinical psychologist and sleep specialist in New York, describes naps as “little snacks on sleep,” noting that they can help top off your energy. “Short, 20-minute nap sessions have been shown to reduce accidents and mistakes while also improving attention, concentration, performance, and alertness,” Dr. Harris, who wrote “The Women’s Guide to Overcoming Insomnia: Get a Good Night’s Sleep without Relying on Medication,” tells Apartment Therapy, adding that naps are useful for both workplace performance and everyday life.

Naps can also improve one’s mental health, points out Dr. Nicole Moshfegh, a Los Angeles-based clinical psychologist and author of “The Book of Sleep.” “Sleep impacts many aspects of our overall functioning and wellbeing,” Dr. Moshfegh explains. “It fosters mental and emotional resilience, gives us a greater ability to regulate moods, improves empathy, helps us think clearly and problem-solve, helps us process social cues, and boosts overall physical and mental performance.” She adds that for those who might not sleep well at night, naps can help improve all of these elements.

But the truth is, naps aren’t always easy to fit into a busy schedule — not to mention the fear of taking one too late in the day and ruining your nighttime sleep altogether. We turned to the experts to find out everything we ever wanted to know about naps, from the ideal length to the best environments for the perfect snooze.

Don’t: Nap later in the afternoon if you can avoid it.

Do: Whenever possible, try to make your naps happen in the early afternoon — but schedule some “wake-up” time immediately afterward.

If you find that naps mess with your regular sleep, experts recommend against napping any time past 2 p.m. “Napping reduces what we call our homeostatic sleep drive, which, along with our circadian rhythm, controls our ability to sleep,” explains Dr. Moshfegh. “Sleep drive just refers to the longer we are awake, the sleepier we feel. Therefore, if you take a nap too close to your usual bedtime it will interfere with your ability to fall asleep at night.” 

Moshfegh adds that people should try to give themselves a “buffer zone” after their nap, as it’s common to feel groggy upon waking up. “Give yourself 30-60 minutes before needing to be most alert,” she suggests.

Credit: Lula Poggi

Don’t: Get discouraged if you can’t nap in a bright room.

Do: Set the scene.

Just as you’ve likely invested in decor and accessories for your best sleep ever, it’s worth priming your space for a good afternoon nap, too. While some people might be able to sleep anywhere at any time (tell me your secrets, please), it’s a good idea to create an ideal environment for the most restorative nap possible. Dr. Harris suggests a “quiet, dark, and cool” space, adding that the desired lighting can be achieved through blackout curtains or an eye mask. 

If complete quiet isn’t attainable, you might consider using a sound machine, a fan, or even earplugs to drown out the background noise and find your way to dreamland.

Credit: Chloe Berk

Don’t: Forget the alarm!

Do: Set your alarm for 20 minutes.

To avoid napping too late in the day, it’s a good idea to set an alarm and keep your nap short and sweet. It might be tempting to sleep for a few hours, but it’s best to limit your snooze to just 15-20 minutes (really!) in order to preserve your nighttime sleep. 

“When we fall asleep, we move through different sleep stages,” Dr. Moshfegh explains. “To reach a happy medium where you are still getting the restorative benefits of a nap while not experiencing a lot of drowsiness right after you wake up, it is best to limit your sleep for no longer than 30 minutes and aim for about 15-20 minutes as the ideal range.”

Dr. Harris adds that quick power naps are much better than longer ones, as lengthier snoozefests can put you into a deeper sleep cycle. “Shorter naps are typically refreshing and can help increase alertness for a few hours,” she says.

Credit: Anna Spaller

Don’t: Ignore your existing sleep issues.

Do: Consider what the rest of your day (and night) looks like before you close your eyes.

I have bad news for people who struggle with insomnia or have trouble falling asleep at night: Experts advise that naps could worsen those issues. “People with difficulty sleeping at night need to build as much sleep drive as they can by staying up for longer periods and ideally being more active,” says Dr. Moshfegh, noting that naps can chip away at that sleep drive, making someone’s insomnia more challenging.

Another scenario where you might want to skip the nap? If you woke up late that day or need to get to bed early, it’s best to save that catnap for another day. 

Credit: Lauren Kolyn

Don’t: Brush off any trouble you have napping as “nothing.”

Do: Take note of what your body is telling you.

Naps can be total game-changers, but if you find that you’re napping more than usual, experts caution that there could be underlying medical issues. “If you regularly struggle to get through the day without feeling sleepy, napping, or dozing off (even briefly!), speak with your doctor to have a thorough checkup and rule out any medical disorders that may cause excessive daytime sleepiness,” Dr. Harris advises, pointing out that sleep disorders, depression, and stress can all contribute to sleepiness and increased napping.

“People who have never normally napped before as part of their usual routine who find themselves needing to nap more frequently may either need to consider whether they are purposely depriving themselves of sleep too much at night, or if they may have an underlying sleep disorder like sleep apnea or insomnia,” Dr. Moshfegh adds. “In these cases, it is best to consult with a sleep specialist to seek extra support.”