For many people naps have a rather questionable reputation. Often they are associated with babies, the elderly, and cats. For some they symbolize laziness, a lack of ambition, or attempts to evade responsibilities. According to the National Sleep Foundation, over one-third of adults fail to get adequate sleep at night. Naps have been called “mini-vacations” and are viewed as one method to address the growing sleep deficiency in America.
When we visit our daughter’s house, I have been known to nap while my wife Diane, my daughter and our granddaughters go shopping. As they leave the house they often say, “Have fun.” My son-in-law says, “Yes — slumbery fun.”
Early afternoon siestas are common in many countries, particularly those where the weather is warm. Such napping has historically been seen throughout the Mediterranean, Southern Europe, China, Spain and Latin American countries. A recent survey of people over the age of 64 in China found that 60% reported napping after lunch for about an hour.
In farming communities in Norway and other northern countries, it’s traditional for farmers to rise early to take care of livestock. This is followed by an early lunch and a long nap. These are known as “sleep replacement naps” and are also common among college students who pull “all-nighters” studying.
My father worked an early shift at a steel mill and had to get up at 4 a.m. every day. My mother would also get up to make him breakfast and fix his lunch. This process also involved drinking a lot of coffee and smoking cigarettes. Later she would take a nap in the early afternoon. She kept this pattern of early rising and afternoon napping for many years. When I came home from school she would often still have the imprint from the bedspread on her cheek.
Just out of high school I worked for a company that serviced trains. I had to go to work in the middle of the night, whenever a train arrived. I could never develop a regular sleep schedule, so mostly I just napped a great deal. It didn’t work well for me, I always felt tired.
In the past, napping was a way to avoid working during the hottest part of the day or to compensate for lost sleep. With the advent of electrical lighting and air conditioning, the situation changed significantly. In many countries the traditional siesta was seen as outdated, until it was reintroduced in the 1990s as the newest corporate fad — “the power nap.” The phrase “power nap” was coined by Cornell University psychologist James Maas, who said that a proper power nap is short (15 to 20 minutes), just “long enough to rejuvenate, but not make you groggy or give you insomnia later.” Some organizations such as Google, Ben & Jerry’s, Zappos, and NASA allow employees to actually schedule regular nap times.
Michael Grandner from the University of Arizona says, “A power nap, between 15 and 45 minutes, can improve memory and reduce fatigue for the rest of the day.” Evidence has mounted from a number of scientific studies showing the benefits of napping. Researchers at NASA found that when pilots took short naps (40 to 45 minutes) their performance improve by 34% and their alertness was 54% better.
Jianghong Liu from the University of Pennsylvania and her colleagues studied napping in Chinese schoolchildren. They found that, “…napping is better than not napping with regards to academic achievement, higher Verbal IQ scores, more positive psychological well-being, and reduced… behavioral problems.”
Sleep is not only a physiological necessity, it also is critical for the consolidation of memory and learning. During sleep, novel words, phrases and verbal concepts become integrated into long-term memory. There is a direct relationship between the amount one remembers and the duration of sleep directly after the learning. Patients with sleep disorders often suffer from memory impairments. Stefan Helm from Aachen University and his colleagues found that napping directly after a verbal learning exercise results in significantly better recall and performance than in engaging in some other task. Their results suggest that speech and language therapy may be significantly more effective if it is followed by a nap, rather than by some interfering activity.
There are disadvantages to napping. It can lead to grogginess, especially when you wake from a deep stage of sleep. This is called sleep inertia and it is associated with long naps. This is one of the main reasons many folks don’t like naps. Naps can also lead to insomnia, especially if you nap later in the day.
There are a number of guidelines to keep in mind that make napping more effective. Naps should generally be short in length (less than 30 minutes) to avoid grogginess. They work best in the early afternoon, so they don’t interfere with nighttime sleep. Age, activity level and medication use are factors that influence napping. The napping environment should be dark, quiet and comfortable. Thomas Edison, a fierce advocate of napping, kept “napping cots” in all of his laboratories and offices. The emperor Charlemagne is said to have taken daily summertime siestas during which he removed his shoes and undressed completely.
Boston University psychologist William Anthony has found that nearly 70% of American workers occasionally nap at work. Some of this is due to sleep deprivation where other activities rob the individual of valuable sleep time. Other on-the-job napping might be a way to fight mental fatigue, which builds up during repetitive and uninteresting tasks. The pandemic with remote work and Zoom meetings has not helped this situation. Last May a survey revealed that overall 33% of home workers routinely took naps during the work day. In Indiana 27% of home workers napped and in Kentucky 43% napped during the work day.
Fortunately, the internet is an excellent source of excuses. So if you are caught having slumbery fun at work, you might just consider one of the following excuses:
1. Do you discriminate against people who practice Yoga?
2. I wasn’t asleep, my screen just froze up.
3. “Boy, that allergy medicine is strong!”
4. “Whew! I must have left the top off the liquid paper.”
5. “They told me at the blood bank this might happen.”
6. “I was just meditating on our mission statement.”
7. “I think my camera stopped working.”