Insomnia and Napping: No One-Size-Fits-All Prescription

If you have insomnia, you’ve probably heard it’s best to avoid naps. Maybe you heard it from your doctor in a conversation about the rules of “good sleep hygiene,” or maybe you read it in a magazine. Is the advice to refrain from napping really sound advice and, if so, do you have to swear off napping completely to get a better night’s rest?

There are no one-size-fits-all answers to these questions, say researchers who recently reviewed the evidence behind the recommendation to avoid napping and other sleep-related do’s and don’ts. It depends on your age and situation.

Chronic insomniacs should avoid naps, but people whose sleep problems are less severe need not abstainIf you have insomnia, you’ve probably heard it’s best to avoid naps. Maybe you heard it from your doctor in a conversation about the rules of “good sleep hygiene,” or maybe you read it in a magazine. Is the advice to refrain from napping really sound advice and, if so, do you have to swear off napping completely to get a better night’s rest?

There are no one-size-fits-all answers to these questions, say researchers who recently reviewed the evidence behind the recommendation to avoid napping and other sleep-related do’s and don’ts. It depends on your age and situation.

Chronic Insomnia

If you’ve got chronic insomnia (trouble sleeping at least 3 times a week for at least 3 months accompanied by daytime impairments), then forgoing naps may improve your sleep. Research has shown that the pressure to sleep builds higher and higher during the daytime and is released at night during deep sleep. Napping during the daytime may result in the early discharge of some of the sleep pressure. This can make it harder for people with persistent insomnia to fall asleep and stay asleep at night.

Accordingly, if you go through cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) for insomnia, you’ll be asked to refrain from napping during treatment. The fact that CBT works as well as it does supports the idea that cutting out naps is a useful strategy for insomniacs who want to improve their sleep at night.

What should you do if you can’t survive without a nap? Sleep therapists may recommend the following:

  1. Keep the nap short—30 minutes or less—to avoid descending into deep sleep
  2. Refrain from naps in the evening, when the pressure to sleep is high.

Mild or Occasional Sleep Problems

If you’re basically healthy and your sleep problems are occasional or less severe, then it’s not so clear that cutting out naps will help. Nor is it evident, in insomnia associated with aging, that the benefits of napping don’t compare favorably next to the difficulties created when the nap is cut out.

Napping occurs more frequently as people age, so the subjects in most studies of napping in naturalistic settings have been older adults. The results have not been consistent from one study to the next. However, the majority have not identified a significant association between daytime napping and nighttime sleep in older adults. Nor did researchers who conducted a study involving healthy young and middle-aged nappers find such an association.

Adding a Nap

Researchers have also looked at how adding a nap into people’s daily schedules affects their sleep at night—mostly in middle-aged and older adults. Here, too, the results are mixed. In some studies, naps resulted in shorter, less efficient sleep at night; in other studies, the naps had absolutely no effect on nocturnal sleep.

Of note is the fact that no researchers have ever conducted a study to determine whether depriving habitual nappers of their naps actually improves their sleep at night.

So the recommendation not to nap that appears on the list of habits consistent with good sleep hygiene? Unless you have chronic insomnia, for now, take this recommendation with a grain of salt. There may be other more effective paths to reliably sounder sleep.

If you take naps, what effect do they have on your sleep at night?

Cats Do It. How Come We Can’t?

People who know I’ve written a book on insomnia often talk to me about their sleep. I hear lots of interesting observations, but sometimes people who complain about sleep have mistaken notions about how to improve it.

If you struggle with insomnia, take care to avoid falling into these two TRAPS.

Avoid going to bed too early and sleeping late on weekendsPeople who know I’ve written a book on insomnia often talk to me about their sleep. I hear lots of interesting observations, but sometimes people who complain about sleep have mistaken notions about how to improve it.

If you struggle with insomnia, take care to avoid falling into these two TRAPS:

1) Habitually going to bed early in an effort to get more sleep. As a rule, this is a bad strategy for people who have insomnia. A certain amount of sleep pressure has to build up every day before your brain is ready for sleep. Going to bed before your brain reaches this point sets you up to lie in bed awake, which creates anxiety and problems getting to sleep.

A better strategy—paradoxical as it may sound—is to stay up a little later than normal (while still getting up at your customary time in the morning). With the extra build-up of sleep pressure, you’re apt to fall asleep more quickly and sleep right through the night.

2) Sleeping late on weekends to catch up on lost sleep. Maintaining a regular sleep schedule isn’t always possible. Your inclination, after a late night out, is to want to sleep in. Good sleepers regularly catch up on lost sleep by sleeping late on weekends at no cost to themselves.

But people prone to insomnia have to be careful about when and how we catch up on lost sleep. Sleeping more than an hour (some experts say 30 minutes) later than usual in the morning can interfere with circadian rhythms and the build-up of sleep pressure that occurs during the day.

If you need to make up for lost sleep, it’s better to do so by going to bed earlier the following evening rather than sleeping late in the morning.

How do you catch up on lost sleep?