Short sleep + 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 of many folks! And for good reason, as sleep is necessary to reset and restore the body and mind. However, sleep needs are unique — some folks function best sleeping for a longer period of time once a day, while others may sleep multiple times for shorter durations. So, it's entirely possible that your proposed plan may bring success and help you make it through your day. Unfortunately, regardless of the type of sleeper you are, your class and work schedule may be a factor dictating the precious hours you have the time to sleep. Another factor to consider is how you physically feel. Are you fatigued? Do you navigate through your day feeling tired and drowsy? Because everyone is different when it comes to sleep, one way to determine if you’re getting enough is to keep note of your level of drowsiness during the wakeful hours. 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 — may be the most common pattern in modern humans, it’s unclear whether it's the natural sleep pattern for humans. Some research has hypothesized that human sleep behavior is a result of scheduled daily activities and use of artificial light such that if humans were to be taken out of these conditions they may exhibit biphasic or polyphasic sleep patterns. In fact, polyphasic sleepers (those who sleep in short chunks throughout the day and night) happen to be about 85 percent of mammals, including human infants. 

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 progressing into a more deep, physically relaxed sleep that's usually 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. This cycling is speculated 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 between the ages of 18 to 65 need between seven to nine hours of sleep each day to feel and do their best. The National Sleep Foundation released a set of recommendations on sleep ranges depending on a person’s age, with younger individuals requiring the most sleep. 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 own individual needs. This could mean a different sleep pattern than your friends or the common standard 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, this comes with some guidelines. Keeping naps to about 20 to 30 minutes is generally recommended to reduce the chances of feeling groggy when you wake up. A nap that lasts longer than 30 minutes increases the likelihood of you entering REM sleep, which may leave you waking up feeling less alert and even more tired than before. While this feeling may only last a few minutes to half an hour, you don’t want to defeat the whole purpose of a nap! If you do nap for longer, it's recommended to nap for about 90 minutes in order to avoid waking in the middle of REM sleep. 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 are 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 once the clock strikes noon.  
  • 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. Perhaps you can complete some activities more efficiently, avoid procrastination, or prioritize your commitments that you feel you get the most out of to give yourself more time under the covers. If you're looking for additional guidance, you could talk to your academic advisor, a health promotion specialist, or a health care professional to find resources or workshops on time management. For more suggestions on optimizing your sleep schedule, consider checking out the Sleep category in the Go Ask Alice! archives.

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 Apr 10, 2020
Originally published Jun 17, 2004

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