How Do Naps Affect Your Ability to Sleep at Night?

Naps may relieve sleep deprivation, but they can lead to insomnia

Woman napping on bed
Sleeping or Napping Tired Woman. Cultura/Sporrer/Rupp/Getty Images

It can be a delicate topic and one that may provoke unnecessary angst or even guilt: naps. A nap can be a wonderful indulgence, a daily plague, or a source of anxiety about how it might affect your night’s sleep. Thought naps can relieve sleep deprivation, they may be harmful if you have insomnia and make it worse. Learn about the relationship between naps and nighttime sleep and whether or not you need to avoid them.

The Timing of Naps and Sleep Needs

Within a 24 hour period, a nap is understood to be a shorter episode of sleep that occurs apart from the longest period of overnight sleep. Most people sleep for about eight hours during the night. Naps may be relatively brief, lasting only minutes, or they may be prolonged over hours. The strongest desire for daytime sleep in adults occurs in the mid-afternoon, typically between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m.

Why Afternoon Sleepiness Occurs

Sleepiness in the afternoon may be increased due to a natural lull in the alerting system of the circadian rhythm, which is your body's internal clock. While you're awake, this system counteracts the building sleepiness associated with the accumulation of a chemical called adenosine. The longer you stay awake, the sleepier you become, a concept called sleep drive. In order to balance this, the circadian rhythm works to keep you awake and alert. However, the alerting signal may not be quite strong enough in the mid-afternoon to overcome the building sleepiness during this time. For many people, this results in a tendency or desire to take a nap. Shortly thereafter, with or without a nap, the circadian signal strengthens and the sleepiness abates until bedtime.

Children frequently require naps during the day up until the age of 4 or 5. Adults may indulge the sleepiness they experience in the afternoon and resume taking naps if their schedule allows. This happens more often in retirement

Conditions That Increase Sleepiness

The desire to take a nap in the afternoon may be stronger if you're sleep deprived and getting less sleep than you need to feel adequately rested. Most adults' sleep needs are seven to nine hours of sleep nightly to feel rested. Excessive daytime sleepiness is the most common symptom of sleep deprivation. The desire to nap may also be more pronounced if you have poor sleep quality due to untreated sleep disorders, like sleep apnea and narcolepsy.

How Insomnia Affects Naps

In general, people with a tendency towards insomnia may have difficulty falling asleep during a nap. They often report that they can’t nap. Insomniacs may describe themselves as being tired, yet feeling wired. The increased arousal signal that keeps insomniacs awake at night also keeps them from falling asleep during the day. If they do take a nap, their nightly sleep is likely to be negatively impacted.

How Naps Can Undermine Sleep

There are many people who can take a nap without undesirable effects. This is especially true if you're not getting enough sleep at night to meet your sleep needs. These naps may help you to catch up from inadequate sleep, relieve sleepiness, and avoid the health effects of sleep deprivation. Those with other sleep disorders may similarly be able to sleep more in the day without any difficulty falling or staying asleep at night. However, sleep during the day can affect sleep at night for some people.

Naps that are more prolonged, more than 30-45 minutes, or that occur close to your intended bedtime can compromise your ability to fall or stay asleep at night. This resulting insomnia is due to a diminished sleep drive. As mentioned above, by staying awake for a longer period, the desire for sleep builds with increasing adenosine levels. However, sleep can clear away the adenosine and other neurotransmitters that cause sleepiness. As a result, after sleep, sleepiness is lessened.

Short, Early Naps Are Best

If you take a nap in the afternoon, it's a little like hitting reset on the timer that controls your ability to return to sleep. A short nap, typically 15 to 20 minutes, will affect you less than a nap that lasts for hours. In addition, a nap in the early afternoon may allow you 10 hours in which to build up the desire for sleep again. However, a nap in the hours preceding bedtime may make it more difficult to get back to sleep later. Moreover, if you require eight hours of sleep to feel rested and you sleep for two hours in the afternoon or evening, you may get less sleep overnight because your body may not require the additional sleep. Your sleep will become more fragmented with more frequent awakenings and prolonged periods awake in the night.

A Word From Verywell

You should avoid taking naps if you find that your nighttime sleep becomes more difficult after napping. If you require frequent or prolonged naps, you should consider whether or not you're getting enough sleep at night. If you're getting sufficient hours, but the sleep is still not restorative, you should speak with a sleep specialist about the disorders that can undermine the quality of your sleep.

Naps can be wonderful, but if you suffer from insomnia at night as a result, they may be something you need to avoid.

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Article Sources
  • Kryger MH, Roth T,  Dement WC. Principles and Practice of Sleep Medicine. Elsevier, 6th edition; 2017.