If you're habitually sleep-deprived, as many shift workers are, naps are an effective way to get the sleep you need to get through the day. Numerous scientific studies show that a nap provides a boost of alertness that lasts for many hours. There are several things you can do to make sure you get the most from your snoozes.
- Develop a nap strategy. Instead of randomly napping whenever you feel sleepy, come up with a consistent plan that fits with your work schedule and then stick to it. For example, if you normally sleep in the morning after night shifts, you might also take a nap an hour before returning to work. Avoid napping too close to your normal bedtime or you risk disrupting your major sleep period.
- Prepare for your naps. Follow the same routines you use when preparing for your regular block of sleep. Make your bedroom as dark and quiet as possible and avoid caffeine, alcohol, heavy or greasy food and vigorous exercise for several hours beforehand.
- Time your nap length wisely. Try napping for a short time at first. Research has shown that many people feel refreshed after sleeping for just 10 to 20 minutes. If that doesn't help, you might try napping for 60 to 90 minutes. A study published in the journal "Sleep" found that a 10-minute nap did the most to improve brain performance and reduce feelings of sleepiness.
- Give yourself time to wake up. Even if you time your nap length well, you may still experience some sleep inertia, so it's a good idea to give yourself 10 or 15 minutes to clear your head before driving or doing anything potentially dangerous. You might also do the things that you'd usually do when you wake up, such as washing your face and having some coffee or tea.
- Don't force it. Trying to "make" yourself fall asleep can cause anxiety. Instead, set an alarm for 30 minutes and lie down with the aim of simply relaxing. "After a few days of doing this, you'll find yourself drifting off into a brief but refreshing sleep," says Richard Restak, clinical professor of neurology at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, in his book "Think Smart: A Neuroscientist's Prescription for Improving Your Brain's Performance."
- Consider napping during your break at work. If your employer permits it, you may be able to squeeze in a short nap during your overnight meal break. Such naps can be especially helpful if you work 12-hour shifts. Make sure that you nap somewhere safe, and that a friend or an alarm wakes you up in time to get back to work.
- Nap before you drive. If you're exhausted after your shift, take a nap before getting behind the wheel. It might save your life!