What is the perfect nap duration? We look at the health benefits of short versus long snoozes

What is the perfect nap duration? We look at the health benefits of short versus long snoozes
  • PublishedDecember 5, 2023

If you’ve ever gone searching for the optimal nap time, you’ll know there are a lot of numbers out there.  

The 26-minute NASA nap. The 5–10 minute kip. The 90-minute snooze. 

This reflects something intrinsic about sleep — every person is different, and every circumstance is different.

But understanding why some naps are revitalising, and others disorientating, might help you make better decisions about dozing. 

One stage at a time

Not all naps are the same, because not all sleep stages are the same. 

There are three stages of non-rapid eye movement sleep (N1, N2 and N3) before you get to rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.

It takes about 90 to 120 minutes to complete a full sleep cycle, and most people go through four or five cycles every night. 

But when you nap, you might not even complete one cycle. 

Jen Walsh, director of the Centre for Sleep Science at the University of Western Australia, says a short nap of about 20 minutes consists of N1 and N2 sleep. 

A longer nap of about 40 minutes will see you enter N3, or slow-wave sleep, which is the hardest stage to wake up from. 

“If you wake up from that stage then you’re more likely to go through a period of what we call sleep inertia,” Dr Walsh says, “which is where you’ll feel groggy.”

If you’re still asleep at about the 90-minute mark, you’ll enter REM — and hopefully wake up on the other side of some pleasant dreams feeling refreshed. 

Got a health question for What’s That Rash? Shoot us a line @ABCHealth on Instagram, or email us a voice memo. We’d love to hear from you. 

The benefits of a daytime snooze

You will see cognitive benefits following any length of nap.

That’s because while we’re asleep our brains are firing — short bursts of neuronal activity that helps make and maintain connections. 

This has been shown to improve alertness, memory processing, mood and even physical performance. 

Electroencephalogram (EEG) tests have found that most of these short neuronal bursts are seen during N2, about 10 to 20 minutes after you’ve fallen asleep. 

N3, or slow-wave sleep, is considered a more restorative phase of sleep where the body starts to repair and regrow. REM is thought to play a role in emotional processing

Woman napping on the sofa, laptop beside her
Naps are known to give the brain a boost — improving alertness, memory and mood. (Getty Images: Kathrin Ziegler)

The benefits of a short nap are almost immediate. If you wake up from N2 sleep you should feel better for about one to three hours. 

But research suggests the benefits from a longer nap … last longer. 

The kicker is to unlock those longer-lasting cognitive benefits, you’ll have to wade through the cognitive dip of sleep inertia first, which can last anywhere between 30 minutes to an hour. 

However, Dr Walsh says, “beyond that sleep inertia, you will see the benefit of the nap”.

And naps don’t just give your brain a boost.

study out of Spain, where people take regular siestas, found that those who took short naps (under 30 minutes) were 21 per cent less likely to have elevated blood pressure compared to non-nappers, and long-nappers. 

People who nap once or twice a week have also been seen to have fewer heart attacks and strokes.

However in some studies (including the siesta study), taking regular naps longer than 30 minutes has been associated with higher weight, blood pressure and cardiovascular risk.

But, as the Spanish study also pointed out, there are often lifestyle factors at play that make it difficult to determine whether that’s all due to the longer naps.

If you find yourself taking lots of long naps, it’s worth ruling out underlying health conditions that can cause day-time sleepiness.

Naps can’t do it all

For a generally healthy adult, taking a nap should not be cause for concern. 

But keep in mind that napping won’t make up for consistently not getting enough quality sleep. 

The sleep you’re missing out on, or ‘sleep debt’, accumulates. It can increase the risk of diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and stroke. 

A nap will make you feel better in the short-term, and as Dr Walsh says, “pay off some of that sleep debt.” But it takes longer to fully recover from prolonged sleep loss. 

One study found that after seven days of sleep restriction, it took participants 12 days to get back to baseline. 

So, nap away, but make sure you’re getting the sleep you need at night. That means avoiding naps too close to bedtime.  

Relaxed cat and teenage girl on bed at home
It’s advised people avoid napping after 3pm so you don’t disrupt your night-time sleep. 

Getting the timing right

Unfortunately, giving an exact time frame for the perfect nap isn’t possible. 

“You can’t set your watch by it,” Dr Walsh says. “It’s so variable.”

That 26-minute NASA nap? The number came from a study of flight crew and was an average derived from 12 people, with 12 different nap times.   

Twenty-six minutes won’t work for everyone. You’ll have to ask yourself — what am I napping for?

If you’re at work and you’re experiencing a post-lunch slump, a 10 to 20 minute nap can get you back on track. 

But if you’re willing to wade through some temporary sleep inertia in order to refresh ahead of a big night, an hour or so will do the trick. 

At the end of the day (or more likely the middle of the day), if you’re feeling off-kilter, Dr Walsh gives you permission to have a snooze. 

While caffeine, exercise and bright light can help pick you up, she says they aren’t as effective as a good nap. 

“They’re not fixing the problem. They’re Band-Aids.

“Napping is the best strategy.”

SOURCE: ABCNEWS

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