How Long Should a Nap Be? Pros and Cons

Jun 14, 2024
Fact Checked
Naps can be beneficial to your health in several ways, but there are potential drawbacks if length, time of day, and other factors aren’t considered.
Written by: Lauren Alexander
Medically reviewed by: Suzanne Gorovoy, PhD

Key Takeaways

For adults, taking an afternoon nap can feel like a luxury. But if you don’t get sufficient sleep the previous night, napping can be an important tool when you become deprived of the quality rest you need to function. Symptoms of sleep deficiency such as grogginess, irritability, and poor focus can be eased by taking a nap, but experts warn the timing and length of your nap can determine whether the respite makes you feel better or worse. 

The Pew Research Center found that 34% of U.S. adults take naps during the day [1] Taylor P. Pew Research. Nap Time. July 29, 2009. Found on the internet at https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2009/07/29/nap-time/ . The data also shows that napping is more prevalent in men than in women—38% of men said they took naps compared to 31% of women, and 41% of men over the age of 50 said they took naps compared to only 28% of women in the same age category. 

If you’re wondering what makes the perfect nap, experts say there’s no golden standard. But there are a few guidelines to follow to ensure you’re getting the most out of your naps based on your individual sleep needs. Keep reading to learn what experts have to say about the benefits and drawbacks of napping and how to do it best. 

The pros and cons of napping 

A nap is defined as a brief period of sleep that often occurs during the day. Research on napping shows it provides many benefits, but naps can also have negative side effects. If you’ve ever woken up from a nap groggier and more confused than when you lay down, you have firsthand experience with the drawbacks of a well-intended snooze.

Many Americans aren’t getting enough sleep at night, and research shows that 40% of adults unintentionally fall asleep during the day at least once a month [2] The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. What Are Sleep Deprivation and Deficiency. March 24, 2022. Found on the internet at https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/sleep-deprivation . Additionally, an estimated 50–70 million Americans are said to have ongoing sleep disorders that cause sleep deficiency, which can cause mood, cognition, and physical issues. When chronic, sleep deficiency can also lead to more serious health concerns like heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and some cancers. 

The short-term symptoms of sleep deficiency can be uncomfortable enough on their own, and if you feel tired, cranky, and unable to focus, it makes sense that you’d want to lie down for a nap. 

Benefits of napping 

Napping can be beneficial to your overall health and provide relief from symptoms of sleep deficiency. 

“After taking a nap, people tend to wake up feeling refreshed, and they’ll notice their focus is better,” said Jenny Kim, MD, a sleep specialist on Summit Health’s Pulmonology Team. 

Current research supports the idea that naps can improve your alertness. If you notice yourself dozing off in meetings or if you have a job that requires you to operate heavy machinery, a nap may help energize you and sharpen your focus. If you’re feeling moody, a nap may also help reset your emotions and make it easier to manage frustration. Naps can also help with memory recall and may also help stimulate creativity [3] American Heart Association. Take a Nap: The Benefits of Napping and How to Make It Work for You. April 9, 2024. Found on the internet at https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-lifestyle/sleep/benefits-of-napping

Studies have shown there are other major physical benefits of taking a nap, including the potential for reducing the risk of heart disease. A study was conducted on 26,281 people who had no history of heart disease, stroke, or cancer and monitored their napping habits over a six-year period [4] Naska A, et al. Siesta in Healthy Adults and Coronary Mortality in the General Population. The Journal of the American Medical Association. Feb. 12, 2007. Found on the internet at https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/fullarticle/4116 . It’s important to note that this study was conducted in Greece among older adults who regularly took a midday nap. The research found that those who occasionally napped had a 12% lower mortality rate from heart disease than those who didn’t nap, and those who regularly napped had a 36% lower mortality rate from heart disease than non-nappers. The study also noted that people in certain cultures, such as Mediterranean and Latin, are more prone to take naps and that countries in these regions also have lower incidences of death from coronary heart disease. 

There are some benefits of napping specific to older adults as well, according to Kim. “If older adults aren’t getting enough sleep at night and choose to nap during the day, there’s the benefit of decreasing the risk for dementia,” Kim explained. 

Drawbacks of napping 

While napping certainly has its perks, it can also be associated with some unpleasant side effects. Before developing a nap routine, it’s important to consider factors like how long you plan to nap, what time of day you plan to nap, and even where you choose to nap. 

To understand how nap length can affect our well-being, first consider the different phases of sleep. When we sleep, we cycle through two different phases called rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-REM sleep. There are three stages that make up non-REM sleep [6] The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Sleep Phases and Stages. April 9, 2024. Found on the internet at https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/sleep/stages-of-sleep :

All four stages together make  one sleep cycle, which lasts about 90 minutes. Healthy sleep typically has about five to six cycles per night. 

When we nap, we want to do our best to avoid waking up during the REM sleep cycle, as it can lead to what’s called sleep inertia. Sleep inertia is the feeling you get upon waking up from a longer nap that can lead to feelings of grogginess and disorientation.

For this reason, Kim recommends taking naps that are between 15–20 minutes. “I recommend taking a short nap because it helps decrease sleep inertia and can be a healthy way to recharge,” Kim explained. “Also, I generally recommend not to sleep longer than 20–25 minutes or you’ll inhibit sleep at night when you should be doing your healthy consolidating sleep.”

Napping for too long can limit your desire to sleep at night and create what Kim describes as a vicious cycle where you don’t sleep well at night and need to make up for it by napping during the day. It is possible to take a 90-minute nap if needed, when it is timed in a way so it does not interfere with your ability to fall asleep at night. If you find that you regularly need a 90-minute nap during the day, it may be helpful to look at your nighttime sleep and see if there are any ways to improve your nighttime sleep duration and/or sleep quality so you can feel more rested during the day.

How long should a nap be?

While longer naps can be beneficial in some circumstances (like for people who work night shifts), Kim generally steers her patients away from them and stresses the importance of taking shorter “cat naps” for optimal health. 

“I suggest 15- to 20-minute naps no later than 3 p.m. in the afternoon. What’s happening in that 20 minutes is it’s putting you into a lighter stage of sleep. It’s a decrease in brain activity compared to wakefulness, which is what gives you that break you’re looking for. A full cycle is 90 minutes to two hours long, and generally, I would not recommend trying to get a full cycle of sleep during the daytime,” Kim explains. 

Tips for getting the best nap

Becoming a good napper is easy once you know how to set the scene. Instead of crashing on the couch after a heavy meal, think about setting an alarm, finding the right time, and creating a nap-friendly environment to get the most out of your resting time. 

Kim recommends setting an alarm for 20 minutes from when you lie down, not pressing the snooze button, and not resting for longer than 30 minutes. She also suggests napping between the hours of 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. and avoiding napping too late in the afternoon so it doesn’t interfere with your sleep routine at night. While you may be tempted to head to the bedroom, close the curtains, and tuck in, she says it’s best to avoid anything that resembles your nightly routine. “Avoid going to the bedroom to take a nap. The bedroom should only be associated with nighttime sleep, and it may make you prone to sleeping too long. If you have a chaise or a comfortable couch, rest on that and be sure to set up an alarm and get up after 20 minutes.” 

If you’re napping because you have trouble falling asleep at night, Kim says there may be an underlying condition, so consult your doctor before prescribing yourself a daily nap. You may also want to consider evaluating your sleep hygiene, which can include your bedroom layout [7] 7: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Tips for Better Sleep. April 9, 2024. Found on the internet at https://www.cdc.gov/sleep/about_sleep/sleep_hygiene.html . Be sure to set yourself up for success by optimizing your bedroom and choosing the best mattress or the best adjustable bed for your sleep needs. 

Napping in older adults

Older adults have unique sleep needs compared to other age groups since sleep patterns tend to change with age. Kim says it’s not uncommon to see older patients who are not sleeping well at night and compensating for that sleep loss with naps. 

“Sleep tends to fragment more as you get older, and the consolidated sleep you used to get a night may be shorter,” Kim explained. “It’s a fallacy that [older adults] sleep less. It’s just that they may be fragmenting their sleep and are using naps to make up for that.”

Another reason Kim says older adults may nap more frequently is because of a reduction in daytime activities.

“This happens to older adults, especially post-retirement, when their daytime activities change. Physical exercise is important to avoid wanting to nap, and you can also find activities to distract yourself during the day,” Kim said. “Patients may also feel sleepy after a full meal, so we recommend avoiding those big meals during the day.”

Kim also recommends exposing yourself to daylight, which is your natural signal to stay awake. This may mean keeping the curtains open during the day or going outside for regular walks. 

Bottom line

When done right, napping can be a healthy way to re-energize and reset during the day. The amount of time you nap is key if you don’t want to feel groggy upon waking. It’s also important to make sure you nap at the right time so it doesn’t interfere with your nighttime routine. Older adults can benefit from napping, but it’s important to find out if any underlying conditions may be contributing to daytime sleepiness before scheduling a daily nap. 

Have questions about this article? Email us at reviewsteam@ncoa.org.

Sources

  1. Taylor P. Pew Research. Nap Time. July 29, 2009. Found on the internet at https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2009/07/29/nap-time/ 
  2. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. What Are Sleep Deprivation and Deficiency. March 24, 2022. Found on the internet at https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/sleep-deprivation 
  3. American Heart Association. Take a Nap: The Benefits of Napping and How to Make It Work for You. April 9, 2024. Found on the internet at https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-lifestyle/sleep/benefits-of-napping 
  4. Naska A, et al. Siesta in Healthy Adults and Coronary Mortality in the General Population. The Journal of the American Medical Association. Feb. 12, 2007. Found on the internet at https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/fullarticle/411678
  5. Zhang H, et al. Association between daytime napping and cognitive impairment among Chinese older population: a cross-sectional study. Environmental Health and Preventative Medicine. Nov. 22, 2023. Found on the internet at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10685077
  6. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Sleep Phases and Stages. April 9, 2024. Found on the internet at https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/sleep/stages-of-sleep 
  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Tips for Better Sleep. April 9, 2024. Found on the internet at https://www.cdc.gov/sleep/about_sleep/sleep_hygiene.html 
  8. Blume C, et al. Springer. Effects of light on human circadian rhythms, sleep, and mood. Aug. 2, 2019. Found on the internet at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6751071 
  9. Zhang Z, et al. Napping in Older Adults: A Review of Current Literature. Current Sleep Medicine Reports. September 2020. Found on the internet at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7992388/
Lauren Alexander is a freelance writer who specializes in health and wellness
Suzanne Gorovoy Medical Reviewer
Suzanne Gorovoy is a clinical psychologist, behavioral sleep medicine specialist, and member of the Sleep and Health Research Program at the University of Arizona College of Medicine. She received her graduate degree in School Psychology from Teachers College at Columbia University, her PhD in Clinical Psychology from Case Western Reserve University, and completed a postdoctoral fellowship in Behavioral Sleep Medicine at the University of Arizona College of Medicine.
Susan Stiles
Susan Stiles Reviewer
Susan Stiles, PhD, provides leadership in the design and development of consumer products that inspire, educate, and activate older adults. She’s been instrumental in bringing the Aging Mastery Program® to market and scaling it nationwide via strategic alliances and business partnerships. Stiles has 20+ years of experience in design thinking, multimedia, strategic communications, and management consulting.
Was this helpful?
Thank you for your feedback!