As a busy high school student juggling academics and extracurricular activities, sophomore Esme Patterson said she has difficulty finding time to get a sufficient amount of sleep at night. As a result of her hectic lifestyle, she said she has acquired a habit of taking naps after school.
“I take naps after school because on a typical daily basis, I’m never in bed by midnight,” she said. “Usually I’m in my bed, going to sleep at one (a.m.). But often, it’s much later.”
While some may look down upon Patterson’s habits, researchers at University of California, Berkeley discovered in 2010 that naps may, in fact, increase the brain’s learning capacity and ability to memorize facts.
Deborah Givan, professor of clinical pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine who specializes in pediatric sleep disorders, said via email that she is sure that the study is accurate. But, despite these results, she still does not recommend that students take afternoon naps.
“I don’t think that the question is really whether anyone (high school students especially) should take naps, but whether they should make more of an effort to obtain an adequate amount of sleep. The average person gets only seven hours of sleep a night whereas, before electricity use became common, the average person received eight to nine hours of sleep per night,” she said. “The difference is not because we have evolved to need more sleep. The answer is that we are all sleep-deprived, except for the preschool and elementary school child who are the best sleepers. If you have to wake up with an alarm, you are not getting enough sleep.”
Shalini Manchanda, associate professor of clinical medicine at Indiana University School of Medicine who specializes in sleep medicine, said via email that she shares the same opinion as Givan. She also emphasized the idea of getting enough sleep at night, even if naps enhance memory.
She said, “Based on the current evidence, it is likely that a nap will consolidate memory in the face of adequate night time sleep. However, a nap should not take the place of otherwise good sleep habits.”
Patterson, nevertheless, said that she has experienced the beneficial effects of her afternoon naps first-hand.
“Sometimes if I’ve been up until 3 a.m. the night before, by the time I get home and I’m trying to read my textbook, I can’t focus on it, and I can’t make sense of the words,” she said. “I will read it over and over again, and it won’t make any sense. So I’ll take a nap, maybe for only 20 minutes, but when I wake up, my focus is back up to where I can read again.”
However, Patterson said these naps are only a temporary solution, and they have actually intensified her sleep problems over time.
“I can’t focus on my homework unless I take a nap. But because I take a nap, I have to stay up later to finish my homework. It’s kind of like a vicious cycle,” she said.
Givan said students like Patterson could possibly have “developed delayed sleep phase syndrome.”
“(Delayed sleep phase syndrome) causes a shift in the circadian pattern of wakefulness/sleep so that your body clock gradually moves to California time, and you don’t,” she said. “Taking a nap during the afternoon would decrease the sleep debt, but would actually shift the bedtime to even later, further aggravating this problem.”
Patterson said her naps sometimes have unintended consequences. If she is careless, she ends up sleeping too long.
“I set an alarm on my phone, and I tell my mom or someone that I am texting, ‘Just make sure I get up. Text me, call me, whatever it takes,’” she said. “But, sometimes on Friday nights, I’ll come home, meaning to take an hour or two hour nap, and I’ll wake up and it’s, like, four in the morning.”
Sophomore David Zakrajsek said he takes a different approach to sleeping than Patterson. Unfortunately for his teachers and academic success, Zakrajsek said he frequently takes naps during class to catch up on his sleep. But like Patterson, Zakrajsek said he is unable to sleep for a satisfactory amount of time at night.
“I sleep in class because of late nights. My bedtime varies from 11 (p.m.) to 1 (a.m.), so I kind of get tired. Early mornings are a factor as well. School just starts too early for me.”
Givan said she agrees with Zakrajsek’s suggestion that school’s beginning time has exacerbated his sleep problems.
“Early school start times aggravate the problem,” Givan said. “There is a discrepancy between the body clock and your social clock.”
Like Patterson, Zakrajsek said he has found both positive and negative impacts from taking naps in school.
“I feel like a benefit of taking naps is that I can remember things more after I take the nap and my brain gets time to rest,” Zakrajsek said. “But I probably do worse in school because I miss notes during class and I get behind in class work.”
Regardless of the doctors’ advice, both Zakrajsek and Patterson said they would advocate other students to take afternoon naps to help them study in the short term.
“I recommend others who stay up late to nap because otherwise, when you’re tired, your quality of work is diminished,” Patterson said. “So by taking a little bit of a nap, it’s just a little bit of a boost that can help you.”