How to Take the Perfect Nap

10 science-backed tips for more productive shut-eye

Mylife to this point is marked off in two epochs: Before Nap and After Nap. From birth until about age 30, I had no patience for napping; naps left me groggy, hungry, cold, and disoriented, or feeling as if I was missing out on something much more interesting in the world. And that’s if I could fall asleep at all, which was almost never.

Seven years ago, that all changed when I moved to Spain on a Fulbright fellowship to research a book on the history of the siesta (yeah, I didn’t know the government gave out money for that either). I would spend my mornings working in the archives and go home around 2 p.m. to cook whatever lunch I could afford on my stipend, then crawl into bed for the next phase of my “research.” For the first few days, I just laid there, eyes wide open and thoughts racing. Day after day, I worked at it, until I finally achieved that first perfect nap.

Sodium Bicarbonate: Na... Mark Sircus Best Price: $7.01 Buy New $10.86 (as of 06:25 EST - Details) After the perfect nap, I’m not entirely sure I’ve been asleep at all. I drift off without noticing and wake up fresh, ready to start the second part of my day. Over the years I’ve honed it to a fine art and become attuned to my body’s natural rhythms. Anticipating when the tired feeling will hit, I try to be someplace where taking a break is possible — if not at home, then maybe in my car or at a park. I took my nap habit with me when I left Spain, and it’s been my secret weapon against burnout and exhaustion ever since. Here are a few of the best napping tips I’ve learned along the way.

Timing is everything

The desire to sleep corresponds to changes in body and brain temperature that run on a roughly 24-hour schedule, called a circadian rhythm. Everybody, no matter if they live in a warm or cold climate or if they’ve eaten a big meal, experiences these subtle changes at bedtime and, to a lesser extent, in the afternoon — usually around six to eight hours after waking. For most people, “prime napping time falls between 1 and 3 p.m.,” writes Sara Mednick, a leading voice in nap research and author of Take a Nap, Change Your Life! Plan your nap for the time when your body is naturally sleepier and you’re more likely to fall asleep.

Know your sleep stages

Different phases of sleep confer different benefits on the brain and body, so you can actually hack your nap by adjusting when you nap and for how long. According to Mednick, the first 20 minutes of your nap are spent in Stage 2 sleep, which provides energy and alertness. Stay asleep longer and you’ll enter slow-wave sleep (SWS), which is when the brain begins to process memories and information, and then rapid eye movement (REM), the creativity-boosting dream phase. If you fall asleep during your prime napping zone and stay asleep for 90 minutes — what Mednick calls “the perfect nap” — you’ll get one full sleep cycle, complete with an optimally balanced dose of all three phases.

Not all naps are created equal, though. “As a rule of thumb, you can count on naps earlier in the day to be richer in REM, while late-afternoon naps tend to be higher in SWS,” Mednick writes. If you’re interested in dreams or are working on a creative project, you might prefer a REM-soaked late-morning nap for the creativity boost it can bring; if you’re physically exhausted all the time, opt for a long afternoon nap rich in rejuvenating slow-wave sleep.

If you wake up groggy, you may be sleeping too long

That disoriented feeling I used to suffer from is known as sleep inertia, and it happens when you wake up during slow-wave sleep, the phase that comes after the energy-boosting Stage 2 sleep. If this happens to you, try waking up a few minutes earlier and see if you feel more refreshed.

The perfect nap lasts around 20 minutes (unless it doesn’t)

Encyclopedia of Nutrit... Michael T. Murray Best Price: $1.67 Buy New $9.22 (as of 02:35 EST - Details) Though Mednick calls the 90-minute nap “a clear blue-ribbon winner,” the National Sleep Foundation recommends a snooze lasting 20 to 30 minutes. That’s long enough to grab a dose of that energizing Stage 2 sleep, without the risk of being plunged into the slow-wave sleep that can make you groggy. There seems to be a general consensus that a nap of precisely 26 minutes is best: That’s based on a famous 1994 NASA study that found that long-haul pilots who napped for 25.8 minutes were 50% more alert than their nonnapping counterparts and performed 34% better on certain tasks. I usually set my alarm for around 30 minutes, to give myself a few extra minutes to drift off.

Don’t nap too late in the day

Improperly timed naps can interfere with your nighttime sleep, experts say. Don’t sleep too long or too late in the day, especially if you have trouble falling asleep at night.

Try a caffeine nap

In my pre-nap days, I would fight off the afternoon slump with a Starbucks instead of a nap. But you can have it both ways. Since caffeine takes about 20 minutes to kick in — almost exactly the recommended nap length — down your latte just before lying down. The caffeine will act as a natural alarm, waking you up refreshed and ready to focus on the next activity. A 2003 Japanese study found that caffeine naps were more effective at combating daytime sleepiness than noncaffeine naps.

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