How to nap: napping is a life skill, so make sure you do it right

Posted by for Life

As festive as mulled wine and family arguments, napping comes into its own at Christmas. But how do you do it right?

There’s a certain sweet spot I wish I could bottle. When your eyelids start lagging heavily, your shoulders drop about three inches, and you feel like you’re seconds away from total blissful oblivion. Ideally it happens in a well-made bed or under a blanket on your sofa. But it could be on a train or bus, head squished awkwardly into a balled-up coat resting on the window. In desperate times – sometimes with a banging hangover – it can be done with chin on chest in a chair. I’m talking, of course, about a good nap.

Today’s typical sleep habits – on average 6.5 hours, taken in one stretch at night – are dictated by our modern, fast-paced world rather than our bodies’ preferred natural rhythms, which actually treasure naps for their restorative powers. Historians have found we used to sleep in two separate chunks – references to this style of segmented sleep go back as far as the ancient poetry in Homer’s Odyssey. The shorter ‘nap’ as we know it today entered regular culture in the ancient Greek and Roman empires when people would nap after lunch during the hottest time of the day. Some sleep experts believe this ‘siesta’ has been imprinted in our circadian rhythms.

Cat asleep on pink cushion
Purring cats are an endless source of joy

But, unfortunately for us, the post-lunch snooze has fallen out of favour in most parts of the world as work, social lives and self improvement have taken over. Yet, as more time and resources are poured into sleep science, it’s becoming ever clearer that napping is actually a powerful tool for both health and success. Take the study by the University of California, Berkeley, that found an hour’s nap can dramatically boost and restore your brain power. Or another from Allegheny College in Pennsylvania, which found that workers who snoozed for at least 45 minutes during the day had lower average blood pressure after suffering psychological stress compared to those who didn’t stop to sleep.

“[Napping] not only rights the wrongs of prolonged wakefulness but, at a neurocognitive level, it moves you beyond where you were before you took a nap,” writes sleep scientist Matthew Walker, in his book Why We Sleep.

The power of napping is now backed by so much reputable evidence – for example, lack of sleep costs most developed nations 3% of their GDP, which for the UK equates to £40bn – that major companies are offering facilities to help their staff do it. Google has EnergyPods (a sleeping bubble with a zero-gravity napping bed, sleep music and relaxing vibrations engineered to help you achieve the perfect 20 minutes), Samsung has nap pods in its Silicon Valley headquarters, Nike has sleep and meditation rooms, and Ben & Jerry’s has had napping rooms for over a decade.

Interiors sofa and blanket
Napping benefits: there is so much evidence to back the power of taking a nap, that major companies like Google and Nike are offering facilities to help their staff do it

And there’s no better time to indulge in the practice than at Christmas. In real life, sloping off for an hour of sleep at midday is frowned upon – even at the weekend there are work deadlines/life admin/something growing mould that really should be cleaned. But during the festive period – when it’s fully acceptable to eat hunks of brie for breakfast and spend most of your day in novelty pyjamas – the rules are blurred. It’s also the perfect avoidance tactic for whenever family politics start heating up. 

But most of all – much like hibernating hedgehogs – it’s our chance to make up for trying to cram in festive drinks with every person we’ve ever met into as short a time-frame as possible, leaving us like near zombies come Boxing Day. In fact, a study by Nectar Sleep found Brits collectively lose 5.5 million hours of sleep over the Christmas period. 

So, there you have it – full permission over the next few weeks to nuzzle into your sofa or slope off to your bedroom for some R&R on good authority that you’ll peel the sprouts far more productively after. But how do you ensure you wake from your slumber, Christmas or otherwise, feeling refreshed rather than like you’ve been hit over the head with a frozen turkey? Is there an art to taking the perfect nap?

How long should we nap for? A famous NASA study showed that pilots who napped for 26 minutes were 50% more alert than their non-napping colleagues

How long should you nap for?

While there’s a lot of debate around how long you should actually nap for, partly influenced by what you want to achieve, a famous study by Nasa in 1995, which prompted them to introduce scheduled napping into their astronauts’ routines, suggested that 26 minutes was the optimum for increased alertness, efficiency and productivity. The study found that pilots who napped for this duration were 50% more alert than their non-napping colleagues. A short nap allows you to enter the first two stages of sleep without falling into the deeper REM stage which might leave you feeling groggy when you wake.

However, if, like me, 26 minutes of slumber on the couch post-The Holiday feels like the meanest nap-time ever, another body of research suggests 90 minutes is golden. That’s because it’s the length of one full sleep cycle, where your body experiences both light and deep stages of sleep, meaning you should wake up feeling refreshed. Not only that, studies have shown a 90-minute nap can significantly boost your creativity and improve procedural and emotional memory. 

Just make sure you don’t go for a 30-minute nap, otherwise known as the danger nap, because your body is jolted awake just after it enters the deeper stages of sleep and you therefore wake up feeling foul.

When is the best time to take a nap?

As with most things, timing is everything. We know how powerful our circadian rhythms are, producing additional melatonin at night to lull us to sleep and additional cortisol in the morning to rev us up. But those melatonin levels actually spike again around 3pm – an energy slump we typically fight with sugar and caffeine but is actually our body’s way of asking for time-out. And, if you need more proof we shouldn’t fight this natural urge, terrifying research has found that nurses are 10% less likely to wash their hands and anaesthesiologists are three times more likely to give patients a fatal dose of anesthesia during the circadian trough of 2-4pm, while judges are less likely to give prisoners a favourable ruling.

Sleep researcher and author of Take A Nap! Change Your Life, Dr Sara Mednick is more specific with her calculations, suggesting the optimal napping time is when slow-wave sleep (deep sleep) intersects with light sleep. You can calculate your perfect nap time using her ‘Nap Wheel’ by inputting exactly when you woke up. The later in the day you nap, she says, the more it will impact your night’s sleep so try not to nod off after 4pm.

How to nap

Now we’ve clarified that your Christmas nap should clock in at around 2-3pm, that it’s more about restoration than straight-up productivity, and that 90 minutes is the perfect timing, how do you prepare for it? First up, you need some sort of covering – sleep scientists believe this to be an innate impulse. Part of it is about temperature regulation; we naturally lose heat to prepare for sleep, hence we need a blanket. But it’s also about conditioning – we’ve been taught to associate bedding with feeling safe, which naturally increases our serotonin levels.

And perhaps more surprisingly, you can also prepare for your nap with coffee. Studies have found that ‘caffeine naps’ – where you go to sleep straight after downing a cortado – are extremely effective. It takes around 20 minutes for caffeine to kick in meaning you can have an excellent power nap before your drink naturally wakes you up with a nice buzz.

Another reason why Christmas naps are so goddam good is the tendency to eat large plates of carbs over the holidays. Carbohydrates – roast potatoes, mince pies, bread dipped in camembert – produce serotonin, which makes you feel sleepy, especially when paired with protein. Plus, the bigger your meal, the more sleepy you’re likely to feel as your body works hard to process it. While we’re not suggesting eating Christmas dinner every day to ensure a lovely nap, there’s no denying it’ll help.

Girl napping on sofa
Napping: ever wondered why its so tempting to nap over Christmas? This is due to increased serotonin levels due to all the delicious carbohydrates

While I’d happily nap mid-sentence and I once found my young son napping with his face literally in his lasagne, naps don’t come naturally to everyone. Some people find it disrupts their sleep too much, others find it impossible to switch off. Nowhere near enough research has been done to confirm this but initial studies suggest that just as there’s a night owl gene, there could be a napping one too. In 2017, researchers in Spain studied the napping habits of 53 pairs of genetic twins and the data suggested that the level of sleepiness people felt after lunch may be genetically influenced. The perfect excuse, if you need it, for your tendency to fall asleep in an afternoon meeting.

If you’re really keen to embrace the festive nap but find it difficult, there are some things you can do to help. Firstly, try to emulate perfect nap conditions: find a cool room (the ideal temperature is between 16-18°C), shut out light and noise, do a five-minute meditation (try the Headspace app) or journaling to quieten your mind and process any internal niggles.

For me, I’ve always boxed naps as a ‘guilty pleasure’, along with my love of Mariah Carey and expensive gaudy baubles. But this year – safe in the knowledge they’re good for my brain and my health – I am making it as essential a part of Christmas as a selection box and pigs in blankets.

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CLAUDIA SAYS: I’m obsessed by sleep and truly believe in the power of naps. I want to know how to have the best nap possible – it’s that time of the year.

Images: Getty, Stocksy

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Alix Walker

Alix Walker is editor-at-large at Stylist magazine. She works across print, digital and video and could give Mary Berry a run for her money with her baking skills.

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