Getting tired of being too busy for a nap

October 19, 1997|By Susan Reimer

THE LAST THING I remember is pulling the afghan across my legs and listening to the sounds of my children playing basketball outside. The afternoon sun glinted through my open bedroom window and fell across my face, warm and bright.

And then I napped.

Downstairs, my husband had simply lost consciousness while reading the newspaper on the couch. It was Saturday afternoon, and a morning of soccer games had made us feel as though we'd put in a full day's work.

He had simply passed out. That is how men nap, I think. Accidentally. But my nap had been deliberate. Anticipated.

I had made no pretense of reading. I curled up in the pile of throw pillows on my bed and shut my eyes as the overly warm fall breezes puffed the curtains and made the last of the leaves rustle outside my window.

I had one purpose: To sleep in the middle of the day.

Napping is a guilty pleasure in this country. We are too pressed by our list of things to do to give into a nap. And too ashamed to admit it if we do.

Falling asleep in front of the television is acceptable, but most of us have not intentionally napped since our babies gave up naps in time to start school.

"I used to take them when the kids took them," said my sister Cynthia. She has four kids and those naps were the only reason she didn't go crazy.

"Even when they were in kindergarten, I used to put them down for a nap when they came home from school. They were taking naps when they weren't tired because I needed one."

Now she can't relax enough to sleep during the day. There is too much pressure to get something done. But she daydreams about them: "Right after lunch. A few pages of a romance novel and then an afghan pulled up to my chin.

"But I don't even stop to have lunch anymore."

Scientists at the National Sleep Foundation tell us that a nap has less to do with how many kids you have or how much sleep you didn't get the night before than it does with your biological rhythms.

Between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m., the human body is overcome with the need to sleep. Twelve hours later -- between 3 and 5 in the afternoon -- that urge returns. A heavy lunch or a boring meeting only heightens the feeling.

This mid-afternoon slump seems to suggest that the human body was meant to nap. A quarter of an hour is usually enough to improve concentration and performance.

My friend Nan told me about a doctor who would take an afternoon nap in his office with his keys in his hand and his arm stretched over a tin pie pan.

When his hand relaxed enough to release the keys into the pan, the clatter woke him for the next patient. That taste of sleep was all he needed.

A nap of more than a half-hour, the National Sleep Foundation says, and our circulation slips into the sleep mode. We wake groggy and sluggish and it takes longer to get going again, although the benefits of that sleep will last for hours: improved alertness, sharper memory and generally reduced symptoms of fatigue.

Naps are not a substitute for a good night's sleep. But, the NSF says, an occasional restorative nap -- so-called power naps -- can help us tap into the "alertness reserve" the doctor apparently found.

If this is true, why do we continue to regard naps as a waste of time or evidence of sloth?

Why do we say things like "steal a nap" or "catch a nap"? Why sleep in the car while waiting to pick up the kids or in front of the television, when there are afghans and throw pillows waiting upstairs? Why push ourselves through our weekends the way we push ourselves through the workday?

In his book, "The Art of Napping," Boston University professor and sleep researcher William Anthony says we live in a "napist" society, full of people who make others ashamed of napping or who hide their own naps.

"We should consider it in tandem with productivity, not in opposition to it," Anthony said in an interview with CNN.

My nap that Saturday afternoon was the first in many years, but I didn't do it to increase my productivity or my mental acuity. My nap was an end in itself. It was my purpose to nap for the pure pleasure of it. That nap was about as goal-oriented as eating a piece of chocolate cake would be.

Maybe that is the reason we deny ourselves the delicious luxury of sleeping in the middle of the day.

"It would be cool and rainy," my friend Nan says, spinning out her nap fantasy. "And the windows would be open just a bit and I would pull a comforter up to my chin. I would lie on my back, princess style, as my mother used to call it, and relax all my muscles.

"It would not be a cat nap. I am a world-class sleeper and if I am going to nap, I am going to nap."

Pub Date: 10/19/97

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