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The Good Nap

The term "nap" on its own may sound like behavior appropriate for a baby or child, not an activity for a grown-up. For some adults the term "power nap" may legitimize getting some afternoon shut-eye. The fact is you can benefit from a nap if you're 2, 22, 42, 62 or 82.
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Who doesn't dream about taking a nap?

To some, it's one of life's guilty little pleasures.

But should we really feel guilty about napping?

The term "nap" on its own may sound like behavior appropriate for a baby or child, not an activity for a grown-up. For some adults the term "power nap" may legitimize getting some afternoon shut-eye. The fact is you can benefit from a nap if you're 2, 22, 42, 62 or 82.

Pediatric sleep coach Brooke Nalle compares a child's need for a nap with a car's need for gas. In order for an infant, baby, toddler or preschooler to function well and last throughout the day, they need to have a full tank of gas. At different ages and stages what is required to fill the tank differs. Young babies need frequent naps between feedings. Babies between five months and nine months are usually able to make it until bedtime without crashing or running out of gas if they have had two long naps or two good naps and a short nap during the day. For babies 15 to 18 months, the need for napping changes once more and they can get by or have a full tank with just one nap a day.

Most children will continue to nap once a day until they are three or four years. According to Ms. Nalle, when a baby doesn't nap she is literally running on fumes and produces the stress hormone cortisol just to stay awake. In these instances, babies either crash at bedtime and wake up crying later in the night to relieve the cortisol or they lose the ability to fall asleep and refuse to go to bed until they blow off this steam. Essentially, Ms. Nalle believes, good naps make a good sleeper. "Naps are just as important as night-time sleep, especially during the first year."

Many adults need to nap during the day, too.

An article by Sumathi Reddy, titled "The Perfect Nap: Sleeping Is A Mix Of Art and Science", published in The Wall Street Journal, helps demystify the myths about how long adults should nap. Ms. Reddy's article includes a comprehensive infographic that illustrates the benefits (and potential side effects) associated with naps of varying lengths.

According to Ms. Reddy's article, there isn't one ideal length of time for a nap. The "ideal" length of time varies depending upon what the napper needs.

The experts Ms. Reddy consulted say it's best to nap between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. because if you snooze later in the day, it may be difficult for you to fall asleep in the evening.

I asked Dr. Daniel Barone, assistant professor of neurology at Weill Cornell's Sleep Center, for his take on napping. Dr. Barone believes the ideal nap should last for about 20 minutes. He advises his patients to keep their naps to under 30 minutes because he believes there is a strong possibility that a longer sleep may cause a person to get into the deeper stages of sleep. These deeper stages can impact how a person feels upon awaking (grogginess, also called sleep intertia) and interfere with nighttime sleep. Dr. Barone acknowledges that a longer nap may enhance creativity and memory, but he believes the risk of not obtaining quality sleep at night precludes it from being a recommended practice. Finally, Dr. Barone notes the importance of determining whether the need for an afternoon nap is the sign of a larger problem, such as lack of quality sleep at night.

Dr. James Maas, an internationally-recognized authority on sleep and performance and the author of Power Sleep and Sleep For Success, believes naps can alleviate the drowsiness caused by the normal dip in circadian rhythms typically occurring between 1 p.m. and 2:30 pm. A "power nap," which Dr. Maas describes as one no longer than 20 minutes, will often be enough to restore energy, and even increase it, for the remainder of the day. Like Dr. Barone, he believes that longer naps have the potential of increasing grogginess for an hour or two after resuming work and might also create nocturnal insomnia.

Dr. Maas believes that an afternoon nap might also provide an increase in general mood, which otherwise might deteriorate toward the end of the working day.

If you and/or your partner or spouse have been particularly cranky or edgy recently, therapist and relationship expert Nyiri Grigorian suggests putting an afternoon nap on your "to do" list. And don't just put napping on the list, keep it on the list. Have a discussion with your partner about when the two of you will actually fit naps into your life on a regular basis. Parents of young children may find it particularly challenging to find the time to squeeze their own naps into a busy weekend but given the benefits adults derive from napping it's important to make the time. Dr. Grigorian points to the refreshing and renewing effects a nap can have on your cortisol levels. Stress reduction, she explains, is the primary goal in maintaining a good relationship. "It is possible a nap can save you from an argument that often starts with an elevated stress level."

Napping isn't just reserved for weekends at home. At the corporate level, the idea of "powering down" during the workday seems to be replacing the idea of "powering through." Recognizing the benefits a midday nap can have on productivity, creativity and health, a growing number of companies, such as The Huffington Post, Google, Nike and Ben & Jerry's, have created dedicated rooms where employees can grab some afternoon shuteye and are encouraging employees to use these rooms regularly.

I often think how nice it would be to take an afternoon nap. But by the time I seriously contemplate taking one, it's usually too late in the day and I don't do it. Vacation is the one time I don't feel guilty taking a nap -- or two -- preferably in a lounge chair on the beach under an umbrella.

But given the benefits of just a 20-minute snooze, maybe those power naps shouldn't be reserved for vacation. It just might be time to include myself among the 34 percent of adults who nap daily.


Cindy Bressler
Co-founder, Bedtime Network
twitter: @bedtimenetwork

A version of this article was first published on Bedtime Network.