Your Guide to Napping: How to Catch Some Extra Z's

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I know you’ve been there.  It’s about 1:30 on a Tuesday afternoon, and even though you know you should go to your 2:00 chemistry lecture, you’re tempted to skip it and nap instead after your almost-all-nighter last night. 
You rush home and crawl into your comfy bed and drift off to sleep without a care in the world for what time you wake up.  Three hours later, you open your eyes and it’s dinner time, and after you eat, shower, and get settled, it’s after 10:00 before you even begin your homework.  By 3:00 a.m., you’re just getting to bed, and the vicious cycle continues…

Naps are a way of life for almost every college student, but it’s often difficult to take your siesta without messing up your sleep cycle.  Lucky for you, I skipped my afternoon nap to write this, so you’ll be napping like a pro in no time.

Why Do You Nap?
Most adults need between seven and eight hours of sleep per night and many teenagers can require up to ten, says sleep specialist Dr. Gary Trock.  Juggling homework, parties, and sleep can often become difficult for college students, so a good night sleep is sometimes put on the back burner.  While sleep deprivation affects all people differently, a long sleepless night often makes people less alert, less creative, less efficient, and just downright grumpy.  A short session of shuteye is sometimes the only solution.

Being a night owl is not the only reason for napping, however; researchers have concluded that biologically, our bodies want us to take a snooze in the afternoon to recharge.  “The human biological clock has two cycles each day, with two dips,” Michael Twery, director of the federal government’s National Center on Sleep Disorders Research, told the Boston Globe.  “One of these dips occurs shortly after lunch for most people.  This is a period when most people feel perhaps a little sleepy, drowsy, less awake.”  This afternoon dip is sometimes hard to push through without a nap.

When Should You Nap?
The National Sleep Foundation separates naps into three different categories, and all are good reasons for getting a little extra shuteye midday.   The first is planned napping, which means exactly what it sounds like: You nap because you plan on being up later than usual.  In collegiate terms, this is that power nap you take midday when you know you’re going to have a long night out.  An emergency nap happens when suddenly your drowsiness takes over and you need to take a nap before you continue what you’re doing. Finally, a habitual nap is that short nap you take at relatively the same time every day.  All of these are great reasons to nap, as long as they don’t interfere with your sleep cycle.

When Shouldn’t You Nap?
While a nap may make you feel better, Dr. Trock says that if you can, you should hold out until nighttime to get your shuteye.  If you had a long night the night before, make it a point to get into bed a little bit earlier to make up for the sleep you missed. 

How Can You Nap So It Doesn’t Interfere With Your Sleep Cycle?
For the most effective nap, sleep for only twenty to thirty minutes, Dr. Trock says.  Your sleep cycle consists of five stages, and a short nap will take you into stages one and two where your brain activity slows down.  When you wake up, you’ll feel refreshed and energized.  If you sleep for longer than this, you risk running into later stages of sleep and REM sleep, which is a deeper sleep and is much harder to wake up from.  When you do wake up, you’ll end up feeling more tired than when you went to sleep.  If you really feel so exhausted that you need to make up for sleep you didn’t get the night before, take a nap for 90 minutes – this is the time it takes to go through all five stages of your sleep cycle so you won’t be woken up during the middle of one.  You’ll be more energized, but don’t make a habit out of it – it could end up messing up your sleep cycle.

If you need some afternoon Z’s, make sure you take your nap early in the afternoon.  This way, it will just be a quick refresher and will still guarantee that you’ll be tired at night.  If you take a nap any time after 4 p.m., you run the risk of being up later than you want.

What If You Need a Longer Nap But Don’t Have Time?
Try drinking a cup of coffee before you lie down for your twenty-minute nap.  By the time you wake up, the caffeine will have kicked in and will be a great energy boost to get you moving.  Just like naps, however, coffee can be detrimental to your sleep cycle, so make sure you don’t drink any caffeine after 4 p.m.

So there you have it: Your complete guide to napping.  I know for me, a short power nap always does the trick to wake me up in the afternoon, but it doesn’t work for everyone.  Let us know: Does napping work for you?  Post a comment!

Dr. Gary Trock, sleep specialist


About The Author

Nancy Mucciarone is a senior at Syracuse University, majoring in magazine journalism and minoring in psychology. Along with writing for HerCampus, she is the fashion and beauty editor of Equal Time magazine, a freelance writer for Studio One Networks, as well as the public relations vice president for Alpha Xi Delta. She is the former web editor for College magazine, and this past summer, she was loving life in New York City as she participated in the Condé Nast Summer Intern Program as an editorial intern at Footwear News. When she's not making detailed to-do lists or perfecting the grilled cheese sandwich, you can usually find her watching Animal Planet or trying to curb her Milk Dud addiction. She aspires to one day be the bachelorette.