Pros & Cons of Napping Behavior

A great deal has been written about napping behavior, much of which could easily mislead individuals into thinking napping is always bad or the reverse, napping is always good. If we review the causes and the dynamics of napping behavior, you will see some naps are indeed very bad and some are very good for you.

In any discussion about napping, the single most important fact to uncover is the rationale driving someone to nap. If you do not know why you are napping, you are missing out on an enormous amount of information so close to your fingertips it would take little to reach out and grasp it. So, let us begin this discussion to sort out the reasons people nap.

The foremost explanation for someone napping is the inability to gain the proper amount of sleep or a healthy level of sleep quality when sleeping. For many individuals, both sleep quantity and sleep quality issues drive someone to nap. Thus, for a treatment-seeking patient who visits a sleep center, chances are extraordinarily high that a physiological cause will be detected on an overnight sleep study, which when corrected with suitable treatment decreases daytime sleepiness and napping behavior. This scenario for napping, then, indicates an underlying disease process. So, we could say the napping itself reflects a health problem, but we should also be quick to point out that the napping behavior may be a life-saver until the individual undergoes treatment.

Notwithstanding, a huge proportion of individuals with sleep issues or napping behavior never visit a sleep center. For various reasons, they do not see their sleep issues as a problem to be treated. Rather, while they may be inconvenienced by sleep issues or napping behavior, they usually compensate in ways to build a lifestyle that minimizes the effects of any sleep concerns; or they create opportunities for naps as the ultimate compensation. These individuals would do well to learn more about napping behavior, because it might be decades before they ever seek care from a sleep specialist. Then again, many may have accurately assessed that their sleep symptoms are not serious, and therefore occasional napping seems like a reasonable component of their lifestyle.

Regardless of the circumstances, a lot of people, up to a point, benefit from the standard instruction for napping: “always complete the nap before 2 pm, and sleep for as short a timeframe as you can, preferably less than 30 minutes.” 

Why are these two steps beneficial? Both instructions dramatically reduce the risk for disrupting your night time sleep schedule. But we should ask: who is at risk for disruption to the night time sleep schedule? And, the answer of course is an insomniac. So, these instructions, which could be applied generally, are actually much more specific to someone with difficulties falling asleep or staying asleep. Chronic insomniacs may nap, and there is one theory that the ability to doze off during the day may give an insomniac some confidence about dozing off at night. Still, earlier and shorter naps are usually the only realistic way for an insomniac to engage in daytime sleep, otherwise, longer and later naps will disrupt their sleep cycles.

Going back to the context of the person without sleep issues, could he or she sleep longer and later in the day? Unequivocally, yes. If someone only finds a nap experience available after work or even after dinner and sleeps longer than 30 minutes, there may be considerable benefits to this individual. Most likely, this person has found himself or herself in a work setting that requires an early arrival on the job, for example in the 6 to 8 am window; yet during the evening hours, this person is playing catch-up trying to attend to many other matters. Whether paying bills, assisting children with homework, or going to the gym (the list is endless in modern society), this individual needs both time and energy to accomplish some of these tasks after work or after dinner. 

What better way is there to gain time and energy? Sure, you could drink a caffeinated beverage, but that too might interrupt your sleep cycle later. The hour long nap from 6 pm to 7 pm could actually provide this person with three or more really solid hours of useful concentration with which to cope, problem-solve or otherwise manage affairs. The person may choose to relax thereafter reading a book, watching a show, or making love, and thus the bedtime is now extended near to or past midnight. Then, the cycle repeats itself where the individual goes to sleep later and loses sleep due to the early wakeup time. But, if the total amount of night sleep is still 6 hours (hypothetically from midnight to 6 am), then in a 24 hour cycle, the napping is upping the total to 7 hours of sleep. And, as you might expect, these individuals are the same ones who reap benefits from an even longer nap on days off or weekends.

Schedules are schedules! In the modern world, there is only so much flexibility. Therefore, finding time for naps at any time of the day works well for many people who do not suffer serious problems. Considered anathema to a sleep doctor, a sleep patient may recount regularly falling asleep in front of the television very near to bedtime and dozing for more than 30 minutes or more! Yet for someone who is dozing due to sleep deprivation and who reports no difficulties jumping into bed and rapidly falling asleep, what’s the big deal? On the surface, someone might declare this schedule “horrible” sleep hygiene, but digging deeper shows the individual is doing a good job of reducing sleep debt in the only way available.

One of the most interesting areas of napping behavior refers to daytime split schedule sleep for shift workers. Either due to lifestyle issues or circadian rhythm effects, the worker heads home and falls asleep at 8 am but only sleeps four hours. If this individual can nap again from say 7 to 9 pm or 8 to 10 pm before heading back to work for the 11 pm shift, there is an excellent chance the total of 6 hours will help this worker endure through the full night shift. Perhaps he or she would catch up even more on days off by instituting longer naps.

Last, the question that always must be asked is whether or not you feel better after the nap? Most people who say “no” usually avoid napping for this very reason. Most people who say “yes” gravitate towards napping as circumstances dictate or permit.

 

Summing up, these five principles will help you use napping behavior effectively:

  • - First and foremost, determine whether your napping behavior signals a sleep disorder.
  • - Upon treatment of a sleep disorder, monitor napping tendencies to gauge treatment success.
  • - Regardless of sleep disorders, if napping boosts your energy and mood, then naps are fine.
  • - However, if naps provide waking benefits but mess up your nightly sleep schedule, follow a regimented approach to naps: earlier in the day and shorter than 30 min (sometimes < 15 min).
  • - If naps do not disrupt night time sleep, use napping as liberally as necessary to combat obvious sleep debt or just because you like it.

Barry Krakow MD

Author

Dr Krakow’s 27 years of sleep research have focused on the complex relationship between physiological and psychological sleep disorders. Dr Krakow currently operates private sleep medical center, Maimonides Sleep Arts & Sciences, Ltd., and serves as Classic SleepCare’s paid Medical Director.



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