Secrets to the Perfect Power Nap

Thinking about bringing naptime back? Read up on the where, when, and how to getting the most out of your midday snooze without feeling groggy.

Ah, naps. Some swear by them, others think they’re overrated. Whichever way you stand, the health benefits of napping are real. Just like toddlers get cranky without a nap, sleep-deprived grown-ups can get irritable, too.

Despite the upsides touted by famous nap-takers (Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, John F. Kennedy, just to name a few) and other devoted daytime snoozers, many still perceive naps as a sign of laziness.

But science says it’s just the opposite. Catching zzz’s in the middle of the day can perk up your mood, improve your memory and productiveness, and make you feel more alert. A study published in the journal Sleep found that even a short nap helps cognitive performance and reduces sleepiness.

And Americans are napping, according to a 2011 poll by the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), which found that napping is more common among younger age groups. Of the respondents, 53 percent of those born after 1995 take at least one nap during the school or work week. Generation Y came in a close second, with 52 percent reporting a minimum of one nap per week. Four in 10 (or 38 percent) of generation X’ers and 41 percent of baby boomers take naps, too.

Some companies are allowing — and even encouraging — cat naps at work. In a 2008 poll by the NSF, 34 percent of respondents said their employers think it’s okay for them to take naps at work, and 16 percent have set up napping areas.

Beyond the stigma, one reason some people shun naps may have to do with the heavy, groggy feeling they experience when they wake up. But what if there were a way around that post-nap haze? Turns out, there is. Follow the when, where, how, and how long of getting the most out of an afternoon snooze.

Who Should Nap

For people who have trouble sleeping through the night (because of stress, snoring, or other reasons), a nap may not be the best idea, says David Volpi, MD, an otolaryngology surgeon and founder of Eos Sleep, a sleep center for diagnosing and treating snoring in New York City. “A nap may confuse your internal clock even more, especially if it’s not a part of your normal routine.”

That said, the health benefits and mental boost of a good power nap aren’t limited to a specific gender or age group. Students, shift workers, desk jockeys — anyone who wants a little afternoon pick-me-up could take a nap instead of a trip to the vending machine.

How Long You Should Nap

The true secret to a power nap lies in its duration. A solid 20 minutes is ideal. To feel refreshed, your nap should take you from stage 1 sleep (drifting off) to stage 2 sleep (when brain activity slows), according to sleep apnea and snoring expert Jonathan Greenburg, DDS, founder of Southern-California based Snore No More, a dental center focused on treating sleep apnea and snoring.

Exceeding that limit brings you into deep sleep, which is what causes the groggy and tired after-nap feeling called sleep inertia. “That sense of sleepiness and disorientation often lasts for about an hour after waking up from a deep sleep,” says Dr. Volpi.

That’s no fun, especially when you have to get through the rest of the work day. Set an alarm to make sure you don’t oversleep.

The Best Time of Day to Nap

Experts say prime napping time is between one and three in the afternoon when energy levels take a tip dip due to a rise in melatonin, a hormone that maintains the body’s circadian rhythm, or sleep-wake cycle.

It’s also just practical timing — soon after lunch, right in the middle of the day. “Napping any later in the day will make it more difficult to fall asleep at bedtime. But napping any earlier in the morning may also be difficult, because the body won’t be ready for more sleep,” says Volpi.

Where to Nap

Choose your napping zone carefully. Pick a quiet space where no one can disturb you. It’s called a power nap for a reason. You’re on a mission to get in and out of sleep fairly fast.

Couch or bed: Does it matter? Not necessarily. Whether you conk out on a cot tucked into a nap room at your office, a seat on a commuter train, or at home in your cozy bed, you’ll reap the same brain-boosting benefits. The difference has more to do with ease of falling asleep. You may doze off more quickly in the place you sleep at night.

“When your body gets used to a sleeping routine, the brain is tricked into knowing that it’s ready for bed and naturally calms the body,” Volpi says.

How to Fall Asleep for a Nap

Eliminate distractions. No computers or phones allowed. A cup of coffee might be a good idea, though. Sound weird to you? Some studies have proven a case for the “caffeine nap.” Here’s how it works: Caffeine doesn’t kick in immediately.

“Caffeine has to travel through the gastrointestinal tract, such that it can take up to 45 minutes to be absorbed,” Dr. Greenburg says. So you drink roughly a 12-ounce cup of coffee right before a 20 minute nap and wake up feeling more awake than you would have without the caffeine boost. Greenburg doesn’t recommend caffeine naps late in the afternoon, though. It may keep you from falling asleep when it’s time for bed.

Go Forth and Nap

Try these tips and let us know how they work for you. Do you feel more refreshed after making napping a part of your routine? If you already swear by naps, tell us why!

Jaimie Dalessio