Our psychologist, Carly O’Sullivan, writes about the power of taking a nap, some of the downsides to be aware of, and offers some tips for how to use napping to your advantage. Interested in learning more about the psychology and science of sleep? Check out our 5-session sleep group program, Sleep Well, which we run online several times per year.

In a world that glorifies productivity, the simple act of taking a nap may seem counterintuitive. However, cognitive research has increasingly recognised the many potential benefits that napping can unlock.

The Science of Napping

Napping is a natural behaviour observed not just in humans, but across many animal species. The science of napping revolves around understanding the stages of sleep cycles and their impact on our cognitive and physiological functioning.

Sleep occurs in cycles consisting of different stages. There are four sleep stages, including one for rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, and three that form non-REM sleep. You will move through the three increasingly deeper non-REM stages before getting to the REM stage of sleep. Each stage plays an important role for our health. A person typically goes through four to six sleep cycles per night. Napping, particularly short naps, can enhance alertness and performance by promoting certain stages of sleep without delving too deeply into the full sleep cycle.

The Potential Benefits of Napping

Napping has the potential to unlock a number of benefits. This is because while we sleep, our brains are firing, creating short bursts of neural activity that make and maintain important connections in our brains.

Benefits can include:

Improved cognitive functioning, including creativity, memory, and problem-solving skills;
Increased alertness and performance;
Mood enhancement;
Physical rejuvenation to help with recovery from muscle fatigue and tension.

The Potential Downsides of Napping

If timed incorrectly, there are some downsides to napping that are important to consider.

Risks include:

  • Sleep inertia, meaning the feelings of grogginess and disorientation upon waking;
  • Disrupted night-time sleep, making it harder to fall asleep or stay asleep through the night.

It’s also important to remember that while naps can feel rejuvenating, they won’t make up for consistently poor quality sleep. If you’re having more consistent troubles with your sleep, it may help to speak with your doctor and a psychologist to address some of the underlying factors.

What is the Perfect Nap Duration?

Getting the most out of a nap (whilst reducing the risks) comes down to the timing. Whilst there is individual variation, there are some guidelines to help you find your perfect time.

  • Early afternoon: We typically experience a circadian dip in alertness around 2pm – 3pm. Napping just before or during this time can aid the body’s natural rhythm to provide a boost for your afternoon routine without disrupting that night’s sleep.
  • Keep it short: Whilst optimal duration varies, naps of less than 30 minutes will give you plenty of the benefits and reduce your risk of falling into that deeper slow-wave sleep that can be the toughest to wake up from.
  • Listen to your body: When it comes to sleep, everybody is different. Pay attention to your body’s signals and individual needs. And if you find yourself needing to take lots of long naps, it’s worth seeking professional support to rule out underlying health conditions that can cause daytime sleepiness.

Navigating sleep issues alone can be challenging. Sleep Well is our 5-session online sleep group using psychology and science to improve your sleep. It is run over 5 weeks by our clinical psychologist, Carly. Our next group begins on Wednesday 21st February from 6pm – 7.30pm. Contact us today to sign up or find out more, or check out our website to find other upcoming dates.

If you would like individual support with understanding your sleep issues and what will work for you, our therapists at Sydney City Psychology are also here to help with individual psychology sessions, so get in touch to find out more.