Everything you need to know about Microsleeping

Everything you need to know about Microsleeping

Microsleeping is a term that describes short sleep periods lasting a few seconds at most. This can sometimes be used interchangeably with the term micronapping, and you have most likely experienced the phenomenon at one point or another. Most commonly, you may notice yourself or another person nod off to microsleep briefly and then suddenly wake or keep their eyes open and continue to look awake. During this sleep state, our brain cannot process external cues and information like usual. 

Microsleeping mustn’t be assumed to be narcolepsy, as one of the earlier signs of the latter can be excessive daytime sleepiness. Other symptoms often accompany narcolepsy, and we would urge you to visit your local sleep specialist for further advice if you suspect this may be the case. In this article, we have looked to tackle the issues surrounding microsleeping and discuss the best solutions available to reduce the risks it may pose to yourself, and those around you.

What is microsleeping?

To reiterate, microsleeping is a term for an extremely short period of sleep. This usually lasts up to 15 seconds. It is essential not to confuse this with terms such as a ‘power nap’ or ‘quick sleep,’ which may last from minutes to hours. During a microsleep, individuals lose conscious control of their performance, and this is an area of ongoing research. 

Microsleeps can also be known as behavioural microsleeps because an individual’s behaviours usually characterise it. These microsleep episodes can also vary between individuals but are generally identified by a person briefly closing their eyes or experiencing lapses of attention. Researchers can identify individuals who are in a microsleep by studying their brain activity. 

Microsleeping usually occurs for specific reasons and can sometimes indicate an underlying health condition. 

What causes microsleeping?

Microsleeping is primarily caused by sleepiness and sleep deprivation. Hence sleep disorders which cause sleep deprivation or excessive sleepiness are most likely to be connected to microsleep. However, this area is undergoing research, and more needs to be learned. 

It has also been noticed that people with shift work sleep disorder and conditions like insomnia and obstructive sleep apnoea are more likely to be involved in a car crash, which could be attributed to the increased microsleeps these individuals experience. 

Common sleep conditions which cause microsleep are: 

It is important to note that healthy individuals may also experience microsleeps, mainly when undertaking repetitive or tedious tasks. Thus, experiencing a microsleep does not necessarily indicate an underlying health condition or that you are sleep-deprived. 

When does microsleeping occur?

Research does not indicate when you are more likely to experience microsleeps. It can occur at any point during the day, e.g., when you are driving, working, doing other activities, or even simply resting. However, research has shown that you are more prone to microsleep if you have a regular sleep routine and face a sleep deficit one night. The critical point here is that any of us can microsleep at any point, and hence, it is essential to take precautionary steps where possible to reduce risks. 

Is microsleeping dangerous?

The act of microsleeping itself is not dangerous however, the time and place it occurs could lead to hazardous consequences. Some situations where microsleeps could pose a threat are: 

  • Operating heavy machinery 
  • Performing surgery
  • Flying a plane
  • Driving 

Essentially, microsleeps could be a risk when undertaking serious tasks requiring you to be awake and focused. A recent study has shown that microsleep episodes are associated with decreased driving performance. This is because the individual is less responsive to surrounding stimuli, and any high-stakes situation requires a quick reaction time – which may decrease if a person microsleeps. 

Experiencing microsleep does not cause any harm physically or otherwise in a safe environment and, hence, shouldn’t be an issue. Further research is needed to understand if microsleep is a risk factor for sleeping disorders. Microsleeps can be diagnosed using a multiple sleep latency test (MSLT), which is used to help specialist doctors diagnose excessive daytime sleepiness but is currently not a diagnostic criterion. Common conditions MSLT is used for are narcolepsy and idiopathic hypersomnia

Symptoms of microsleeping

The most common signs of microsleeping are partially or fully closing your eyes, though it can also happen with your eyes open. Another symptom of microsleeping is nodding your head. In most cases, individuals don’t realise they are microsleeping as the symptoms are very subtle. 

Instead, you may realise that you briefly stopped paying attention to whatever was around you or ‘zoned’ out. During a microsleep episode, individuals respond less to external stimuli, such as sound or visual cues.

Research has found that people tend to move their eyes more slowly in the moments leading up to microsleep. However, this can be hard to notice. It has also been noticed that pupil dilation can often be a symptom of microsleeping. 

In some instances, technology can detect those microsleeping through eye-tracking tools and facial videos. 

How to prevent microsleeping

Currently, there is no specific treatment available for microsleeping, because it is a behavioural-based symptom. Microsleep is also not recognised as a sleep disorder or a diagnostic criterion for other sleep disorders. As it is mainly associated with sleep deprivation and excessive daytime sleepiness, it would be helpful to improve your sleep hygiene, your sleep routine and your total sleep time. 

The average adult requires seven or more hours of sleep, which can help people feel sufficiently re-charged for the next day. Some ways you could look to improve your sleep and sleep routine are: 

  • Trying breathing techniques to help you relax before sleep 
  • Considering your sleep environment, e.g. temperature, bedding and more
  • Putting your phone away before bed and avoiding blue light
  • Listening to calming music before bed as a way of relaxing 
  • Reading a book to ease you into sleep 
  • Trying items such as weighted blankets to provide comfort whilst asleep

We have collated other valuable methods of helping you relax and ease into sleep here to reduce microsleeping and ensure you wake up fresh the next day. Sometimes microsleeping can also be caused by strenuous work or repetitive tasks, so ensure you take regular breaks and keep refreshed at work, too. 

It is important to note that in some cases, microsleeping may be a symptom of an underlying health condition and if you suspect that, we urge you to visit your local GP or sleep specialist as soon as possible. 

When should you seek medical advice?

Microsleeping can pose a severe threat in a high-stakes environment, and we encourage you to try the methods listed above as ways of combatting microsleeping. In many cases, it can take time to realise that we are microsleeping, or notice the effects of any interventions. Once your sleep improves and you feel more energised during the day, this could lead to a reduction in microsleeping.  

In the scenario that you do not see or feel any improvements, please contact your local GP or sleep specialist to seek support, as microsleeping can be an early sign of of an underlying health condition such as insomnia or sleep apnoea. If not diagnosed and treated appropriately, these conditions can cause serious harm to your health. 

As a sleep physician and psychiatrist, we offer consultations for those struggling to sleep. Please contact us if you require further advice on tackling microsleeping, or are concerned about your sleep. 



The articles in the Sleep Psychiatrist blog have been written by Dr Dipesh Mistry. They are for educational and informational purposes only, and should not be regarded as medical advice. Always seek advice from your sleep physician, personal physician, psychiatrist, or any other suitably qualified healthcare professional in relation to any interventions or treatment for your sleep, mental health or physical health.

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