Are short sleeps and long naps healthy?

Hi Alice,

I find that I'm most alert late at night, and at school I'll stay up till three or four in the morning. Since I've had morning classes in the past, I've tried to form a habit of going to bed earlier — around midnight or one — but realistically, I don't think this is ever going to happen. I was thinking of trying, when I go back to school this fall, to go to bed around three or four and sleep for four hours, and then also take a four-hour nap during the day. Is this a good solution, or will I be more tired than if I sleep eight hours straight at night? Thanks!

Dear Reader, 

Getting enough Zzzs is a concern for many students. And for good reason, since sleep is necessary to restore the body and mind. However, sleep needs are unique. Some folks function best when they sleep for a longer period once a day, while others may sleep multiple times in day for shorter durations and find that suits them better. While your proposed plan may bring a successful change for you it's important to remember that your class and work schedule may fluctuate. Your schedule could be a factor that dictates the precious hours you have to dedicate to sleeping.  In short, only you can really answer if the quantity and quality of sleep you’re getting is enough to keep you functioning throughout the day. If you can keep your eyes open, keep reading for more details on sleep! 

When it comes to getting some shut eye, the literature describes three different sleep patterns: monophasic, biphasic, and polyphasic. Though monophasic sleeping—sleeping in one continuous block once a day—could be the most common pattern in modern humans, it’s unclear whether it's the natural sleep pattern. Some research has noted that human sleep behavior is actually the result of scheduled daily activities and the use of artificial light. If humans were to be taken out of these conditions, they may exhibit biphasic or polyphasic sleep patterns which consist of more than one block of sleep a day. Still, having uninterrupted, regularly scheduled sleep is thought to be the best way to feel rested and energized when the alarm clock rings. 

In most healthy adults, sleep usually begins with non-rapid-eye-movement (NREM) sleep. This then progresses into a more deep, physically relaxed sleep that's referred to as rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep. The body cycles through both NREM and REM sleep, spending about 20 to 25 percent of sleep time in REM sleep. The REM cycle is thought to enhance physical and mental restoration and optimize memory. 

The amount of sleep a person needs, as you may have anticipated, varies from person to person. Most adults ages 18 to 65 need between seven to nine hours of sleep each day to feel their best and function accordingly. For more specifics on time needed in relation to your age you can check out The National Sleep Foundation sleep recommendations. Unfortunately, regular and continuous sleep can be hard to come by with classes, homework, friends, jobs, families, extracurricular activities, and other commitments. As a result, it’s essential to pay attention to your individual needs and adjust your sleep accordingly. This could mean your sleep follows a different pattern than other people you know and may even include naps. 

In general, a short afternoon sleepy time may not disrupt being able to get seven to nine hours of nighttime sleep. However, there are some nap time recommendations. Keeping naps to about 20 to 30 minutes can reduce the chances of feeling groggy when you wake up.  If you do nap for longer, it's recommended to nap for about 90 minutes to avoid waking in the middle of REM sleep. Waking up in the middle of REM sleep can leave you feeling potentially more tired than before. Some additional tips to consider when trying to make the most of your naps include: 

  • Spacing the nap as far away from your nighttime sleep as possible so that you’re still able to fall asleep at night. Consider napping in the late afternoon around two or three p.m. (though this may vary depending on your usual bedtime). 
  • Trying to limit your caffeine intake later in the day. 
  • Keeping a regular sleep schedule, including when you nap and on the weekends. Unpredictable sleep schedules may result in an effect similar to jet lag, which could affect your overall sleep quality. 

In addition to strategizing your nap hours, it might also be helpful to think about how you use your waking hours. Consider prioritizing essential commitments earlier in the day to avoid working on those tasks late in the night and robbing yourself of more time under the covers. If you're looking for additional guidance, you might consider speaking with a health promotion specialist or health care professional to find resources or workshops on sleep, stress, and time management. 

Ultimately, the sleep schedule that allows you to feel rested and alert throughout all of the activities you need (and want) to do is the best plan for you. 

If you snooze, you don’t have to lose!

Last updated Sep 01, 2023
Originally published Jun 17, 2004