Do Naps Count as Sleep or Are You Wasting Your Time?

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Taking a nap feels like an unwarranted punishment to a young child. But as an adult, naps became a coveted treasure in a sleep-deprived society that never rests. But do naps count as sleep or are you spending time on something that isn’t actually recharging the batteries?

When taken correctly, a quick nap can boost your energy level and alertness. Naps of 10-20 minutes place you in the correct sleep state to reap the maximum energy boost – sometimes up to 2.5 hours. While naps don’t provide the full benefits you get from a proper dose of solid sleep, they can be useful.

Naps, which can also known as power naps, taken infrequently can provide a quick recharge to your stamina and concentration. But if you find yourself needing a daily nap, this may be a sign you are not getting the right amount of sleep for your circadian clock.

This article explores what happens to your body when you sleep, how frequently you should nap and some overall tips to maximising your nap production. We hope you enjoy your zzz’s much more into the future!

What Happens When You Sleep?

Adequate sleep is a biological necessity. Some animals, like the koala, sleep considerably more than they’re awake. While others, like the elephant, get by on a mere 4 hours in a day. As for people, scientists still agree that an average of 7-9 hours of sleep is the ideal number for optimal performance.

Getting the proper amount of sleep impacts your overall well-being. From storing long-term memories to performing repairs on the body, sleep keeps you in top form. During your sleep, the mind and body are in restoration mode. Your health and mental wellness rely on system processes that occur in this state of slumber.

Your particular sleep needs will differ from others but in general, a solid round of sleep is essential. When you don’t get enough sleep, it shows. You find yourself more irritated or annoyed, maybe even angry over little things. You’re more forgetful or distracted when you haven’t gotten enough sleep.

In order to fully understand the difference between a nap and sleep, let’s take a closer look at the stages of a sleep cycle. 

Stages of a Sleep Cycle

Researchers have determined there are four distinct stages of sleep. Each stage is differentiated by monitoring brainwave frequencies, eye movements, and muscle activity. The first three stages of the sleep cycle are collectively known as non-REM sleep. REM sleep in stage four refers to the rapid eye movement that occurs in this vivid dream state.

Stage 1

In the first stage of sleep, your brain frequency has slowed down slightly compared to when you’re awake. At this point, your breathing rate has not changed and muscle tone is still prevalent with visible twitching movements. You are easily awakened in this state of sleep and may even doubt you were asleep at all.

Stage 2

As you drop into stage two, your body experiences a modest drop in temperature. Your breathing and heartbeat have slowed down. The movement of your eyes has ceased and brainwaves show spikes of activity. Most people spend about 50% of their sleep time in Stage 2 of the sleep cycle.

Stage 3

You are in the deepest state of sleep when you enter this stage. Your heartbeat and respiration have slowed to their minimum. The body has reached its most relaxed state and brain frequency has reached delta wave status. 

According to the Sleep Foundation, Stage 3 of the sleep cycle is when the renovation and rehabilitation of the mind and body occurs. During this stage of deep sleep, cognitive processes associated with memory, insight, and creativity are nourished. It is here that immunity is fortified and biological growth systems are strengthened.

Stage 4

This is the stage known as REM sleep and is named for the rapid movements the eyes make as you sleep. Muscles are in a catatonic state with exception of those controlling your lungs and eyes. Like your eye movements, breathing rates are inconsistent and unpredictable. 

Here, your brainwaves resemble those seen when you’re fully awake. While you may dream in other stages, REM dreams are more vivid and extraordinary. This is most likely due to the higher frequency of brain activity.

Confused? Check out the video below with Matthew Walker a Sleep Scientist who discusses the stages of sleep in a way which is easy to understand

Duration of Sleep Cycles

A complete cycle through the four stages of sleep can take from 70 to 120 minutes. During the early cycles of sleep, time spent in each stage is shorter. As your sleep allotment extends, the amount of time each sleep cycle takes to complete also grows longer.

On average, you can expect to experience anywhere between 3 and 6 cycles in one full session of sleep. How much time you spend in each stage of the sleep cycle changes as you progress. For example, stage one sees the least amount of time per cycle with a maximum of 5 minutes.

You spend the greatest amount of time in stages two and four with a range of 10 to 60 minutes each per cycle. Stage three comes in at a close second with an average time of 30 minutes spent in restorative lockdown. These times will vary for a number of reasons including age, stress levels, and consumption of alcohol.

*Time spent in each stage of sleep

Sleep Stage Duration in minutes
nREM 1maximum of 5
nREM 210 – 60
nREM 320 – 40
REM 10 – 60

Napping the Right Way

Have you ever taken a nap and only felt even more tired after waking up? If so, then you will probably agree that there is a wrong way to nap. After all, isn’t sleeping supposed to make you less sleepy?

So what happened during your nap that caused such an unexpected outcome of being even more tired and groggy? Chances are your nap session fell too deeply into sleep. Simply put, you were asleep for too long and hit stage three of a sleep cycle.

The secret to taking a nap the right way is keeping it short.

The longer you nap the greater the chance of getting to stage three. When you’re awakened during this deep sleep, your mind and body have essentially slammed on the brakes and jammed into reverse. 

You’re confused and blurry-eyed, unable to shake the brain fog for the next half hour or even longer. You may even feel stiffness in your muscles as you try to get up and on the move again. That’s all due to the fine mechanics and engineering of the human body. 

Stage three is that all-important restorative stage in the sleep cycles so it’s no wonder being awakened mid-repair can be so detrimental. Your body didn’t get the chance to warm back up to operating temperatures preventing you from firing on all cylinders. 

Muscles weren’t given the electrical jump-start the body gets from completing the check-up cycle of sleep. Your cold, stiffened muscles remain slow to react if you awaken in the third stage of sleep. Combine this with a delay in your reaction time and your nap has become a hazard to you and others around you.

Taking short naps of no more than 20-30 minutes will help keep you from entering the deep sleep state of stage three. Waking before reaching stage three will give you the sensation of having slept for four hours. Sleep Foundation researchers have found that a 10-minute nap provides 2.5 hours of energy and alertness.

4 Fast Stats on Naps

1. Avoidance of your mid-day meal will not prevent the body’s natural tendency to feel sleepy after lunch

It’s not your lunch that brings on that drowsy feeling in the middle of your day. Your circadian clock’s battery is running lowest during two time periods of the 24-hour day. The first one occurs around 3 A.M. while the second one strikes at about two in the afternoon.

If your wake schedule has you up during either of these time frames, chances are you may feel that urge to sleep. A quick nap after a healthy lunch high in protein and carbs can be the best thing for your mood. Best of all, short power naps have been shown to improve your clarity, creativity, and decision-making processes. 

2. A regularly scheduled nap can reduce the risk of death from cardiovascular issues by as much as 37 %

Researchers in Greece performed a multi-year study and determined having a routine that included a 30-minute nap three times a week significantly reduces your chances of dying from poor cardiovascular health. Some doctors believe adding a few naps to your weekly schedule can help reduce high blood pressure. Nothing like a European siesta!

3. Taking a restful break does not require that you fall asleep in order to gain the benefits of a nap.

Not everyone has the luxury of kicking back for a full nap after their lunch and some cultures frown on naps at work. What you can do, however, is make good use of your break with some stress-reducing meditation. Clearing your mind and resting even without falling asleep has been shown to help lower blood pressure.

4. To prepare yourself for an extended wake period beyond your normal routine, consider taking a prophylactic nap.

A 90-minute nap, taken in preparation for an extra-long wake period, will provide you with a 10-hour window of top performance and energy levels. You will have an easier time staying alert for the double shift by charging up beforehand. Taking a properly scheduled session of sleep before a lengthy event will help stave off symptoms of sleep deprivation.

Tips for Taking Naps

  • Set an alarm to ensure you don’t sleep beyond the ideal short nap time frame of 10-20 minutes
  • Avoid napping during the five-hour period before your regular bedtime to prevent a disruption to your restorative sleep
  • Construct a space that enables you to nap in a peaceful and relaxing environment with minimal distractions (Here is how to create the perfect bedroom oasis!)
  • Avoid using stimulants like caffeine as a substitute for resting and don’t rely on sleep-inducing medications as both can have negative impacts on your body’s production of the hormones related to wake / sleep cycles.
  • Use the time to step away from your daily worries and reflect on the goals you’re reaching for in your life. Your nap time can have multiple effects on the mind and body!
  • Worried about something? Write it down and let it go. Then try and nap again
  • Try these weird by effective sleep techniques

Related Nap Articles

Related Nap Questions

Is it possible to get too much sleep?

Yes, in fact, too much sleep can lead to major health problems. A study in 2010, found that routinely taking long naps greater than one hour in length led to higher rates of Type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome. Further research uncovered an increase in cardiovascular disease by 34% and a 30% increase in all causes of death. In addition, these studies have determined long naps only exacerbate conditions such as insomnia.

What can happen from a prolonged lack of sleep?

A prolonged lack of sleep, called sleep deprivation, can lead to;

  • Having a short fuse and becoming easily agitated or angered.
  • Increased loss of focus and ability to concentrate on tasks.
  • Decreased strength of your immunity, unstable insulin sensitivity, and an increase in body mass.
  • Developing sleep deprivation headaches which are believed to be linked to the brain’s glymphatic system that clears out waste and sends important chemical compounds throughout the body.

Naps are a great tool to rekindling the abundance of energy you know that’s inside you. Make sure they are planned and don’t transition you into a sleep state that may have negative consequences. 10-20 minutes is all you need to get through the remainder of your shift, or even better, help you prepare for a big night out on the town. We know that’s much more exciting than work!


Disclosure: This page may contain affiliate links, meaning we receive a commission if you decide to make a purchase through our links, but this is at no additional cost to you. Please read our disclosure and privacy statement for more info.

Emma @ The Other Shift

Hey there! I'm Emma Smith a passionate, Registered Nurse from Australia. Together with my husband Daniel, we run The Other Shift. Our sole aim is to help shift workers and those on unusual schedules find balance between work and life. I understand the challenges of fitting in exercise, maintaining relationships and getting enough quality sleep, but I'm excited to show you that it’s possible to do shift work and still thrive. Read more about us and our story here.

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