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‘Tactical Napping’ and Other Tips to Sleep Well On Deployment

Image of A trainee attempts to get a little sleep as he waits for transportation at the Joe E. Mann Ballroom Dec. 18. He is one of thousands of Initial Entry Training Soldiers across the Army who are headed home on leave for the holidays. . A trainee attempts to get a little sleep as he waits for transportation at the Joe E. Mann Ballroom Dec. 18. He is one of thousands of Initial Entry Training Soldiers across the Army who are headed home on leave for the holidays. (Robert Timmons)

Getting enough sleep is always essential for optimal performance and functioning.

But service members know that a full night's sleep is not always an option. On deployment, many things make sleep a challenge, including combat operations, long work days or 24-hour watch duty.

Service members on deployment may be anxious, concerned about their own safety or missing home. And they may face uncomfortable sleeping surfaces and unusual sleep-wake cycles.

"Sleep is an inherently vulnerable state, and in operational environments there are many factors that can make it difficult to initiate or maintain sleep," said Army Lt. Col. (Dr.) Scott Williams, director of the Center for Military Psychiatry and Neuroscience (CMPN) at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Prior traumatic events or mild traumatic brain injury can also lead to additional sleeping problems.

As a result, getting proper sleep is a luxury that many service members may not always have.

"On average, military personnel sleep approximately six hours" a day, said Dr. Tom Balkin, a senior scientist at the CMPN's Behavioral Biology Branch.

An average of six hours of sleep isn't enough – at least seven hours is recommended, Williams said.

Running short on sleep could lead to poor health or poor performance. Sleep disorders can be "significant threats to readiness and lethality," according to the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research's Behavioral Biology site.

Prioritizing sleep during deployments is key to better performance, and, in the long run, a healthier military experience.

Tactical Naps

When long blocks of sleep are impractical, "the practice of tactical napping" can help reach the recommended seven hours of sleep per 24 hours, said Dr. Sara Alger, a sleep research scientist at the Behavioral Biology Branch's Sleep Research Center.

"A tactical nap is ideally in a space that is dark, quiet, and comfortable, but realistically anywhere that is safe."

These naps can also be used to get extra sleep before upcoming sleep loss, to increase alertness during major operations, and to help recover more quickly after sleep loss, said Alger.

And though napping may lead to initial grogginess when you wake up, she said, using the combination of naps and caffeine strategically can reduce that.

If you're having trouble sleeping or want to learn more, check out these resources, contact your health care provider, or fill out this sleep health assessment.

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Last Updated: September 29, 2023
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