My Tips for Surviving Night Shift
Currently writing to you from the nurse’s station at 0300. Welcome to the night shift. Although there is a constant struggle of merely living your daily life, I do love night shift for a variety of reasons, and don’t plan on leaving the dark side anytime soon. However I understand that majority of people do not enjoy workin’ the graveyard, and that it basically depletes you of a social life and leaves you malnourished with sleep deprivation.
Regardless of your preference of shift, you’re probably here because you work night shift, are about to start, orrrr you’re on dayshift and just want to laugh at all the modifications we have to employ every day. So here’s what has worked for me after 3 years on nights.
Bring healthy snacks and eat throughout your shift. I could lie to you and pretend that I do this, but anyone who knows me knows that I eat like absolute crap. One day I’ll progress on my personal goals to eat healthier but in the meantime I’ll tell you to do the opposite of what I do. Carbs and sweets will give you a short burst of energy but quickly disappoint and make the night drag on longer. And instead of eating one big meal on your lunch break which can make you sluggish and tired afterwards, eat smaller meals throughout the shift to help keep your energy in a good place. I always try to go on lunch as late as possible cause once I eat my full meal… goodbye brain.
Know how you respond to caffeine. I can down a dangerous amount of espresso and still feel tired while others get palpitations with a latte. Think about how caffeine affects you, and when you should stop drinking it on your night shift. Definitely have something at the beginning of your shift to give you a jump start, but be cautious with having coffee near the end of your shift as it can keep you up when your shift is over. I try not to have any caffeine past 0400 so I can fall asleep as soon as I get home.
As an add-on to that, I try to fall asleep as quick as I can when I get home. I have a quick breakfast and I am in bed within 20 minutes of being home. When I get distracted by the chores I need to do or stay up a little later after my shift, I find it’s harder to fall asleep. Maybe it’s because I’ve been exposed to the daytime longer and it’s difficult to adjust back to it actually being your “night.”
Know what kind of schedule works for you. Some nurses like to do three shifts in a row, others prefer spacing them out a little more. Try both and see what works best. I prefer not doing three in a row because I feel like I have more off time when I split up my shifts. Others prefer three in a row because it improves their sleep schedule. You’ll read a lot of people’s opinions on how to sleep for nightshift. Again, do what works for you. Some people force themselves to wake up early mid-day if they don’t work again that night. This way, they’re able to fall asleep at a decent time that night and have a productive next day off. In contrast, I prefer sleeping until like, 1500 because it’s not worth waking up that early to me. I feel like death anyways and my day is wasted struggling hard. But as a result, I am up late every night of the week.
I pretty much stick to a nightshift schedule on my days off, staying up until 1-4am. I am fortunate to work nightshift with my roommate, so we both have each other for entertainment when we’re up in the middle of the night. Our neighbors probably think we’re crack addicts when we vacuum or rearrange our living room at 3am, but that’s their issue.
My biggest piece of advice would be to sleep when you are tired. That’s it. Don’t force yourself to get up early if you don’t need to, and don’t force yourself to stay up late if you’re tired. Nightshift is a weird, abnormal, (awesome, in my opinion) schedule. Just embrace it and prioritize your health first. Which leads me to my next suggestion…
Learn to say no. Nightshift is difficult in the fact that you potentially could be somewhere during the day if you just don’t sleep. Whether it’s a friend’s birthday, appointment, whatever… people may expect you to be able to show up with no neurological deficits after not getting any sleep for the past 24 hours. One thing I’ve learned is that a lot (not all) people on a normal dayshift schedule really can’t empathize with people on a nightshift schedule. I explain to them that their 2pm is my 2am, so no… I don’t want to be awake right now and yes, it was you that woke me up by closing your door too loud. Which again leads me to proceed to my next point.
Make your sleep space sleepable. Say that 10 times fast? Don’t expect to sleep well if your room is bright or hot or loud. I’m sure you’ve heard you need blackout curtains. Most of these aren’t true “blackout” curtains, so buy two and layer them on top of eachother to truly darken your room. You’ll need at least one black set to really block out light. If black curtains don’t jam with your bedroom ambiance, put it behind the curtains you want showing. Even if some light is showing through the curtains or your eyes are closed, light in your room will trigger your brain that it’s daytime. Your circadian rhythm is influenced by light. Try and stay in bright light at work and make your bedroom at home as dark as you can. Like the true soul of the nightshift nurse.
If your house is hot, then invest in a way to cool it down. I know so many nurses that don’t have air and don’t sleep well because they’re too hot. Nurses need their sleep for the safety of themselves and their patients. Run your AC, or buy a portable AC unit for your room if you don’t have central air. The extra cost of air is SO worth the good sleep. If you sleep around a lot of noise get a white noise machine, app, or air filter. Turn your phone on silent so you don’t get woken up nonstop.
Talk to your roommates/spouse/neighbors/neighbors dog if they do something that continuously wakes you up. Most people that have never done nightshift do not understand how your clock is the exact opposite of theirs. Explain this to them, so they can truly understand how much it sucks if you wake up mid-day in between shifts.
Find ways to stay alert during your shift. Drink ice cold water to wake your body up. Find productive tasks to help out dayshift, or get up and walk every hour. The more your mind and body are stagnant, the more tired you’ll be and the slower the night. If another nurse appears busy, help them out as a way to keep moving (and to be a nice human). Try not to hide out in a dark station, and talk with other nurses to keep awake. I guess you could talk to your patients too, for those of you on the floors. For whatever reason my patients never talk to me much..
DRUGS. Ahh sleeping pills..I know of a lot of nurses that need to take something to force themselves to sleep during the day. I’ve left this until the end because personally, I don’t use any sleep aids as I’m able to sleep pretty well. So, I don’t really have any specific recommendations for you in this regard. All I can say is that I would try everything I mentioned above to try and improve your sleep first, before needing to take a pill every day to get some rest. You don’t want to have to rely on sleeping pills the rest of your life. And the hangover when you wake up and have to go to work is dreadful.
Then there’s the more natural option, melatonin. I hear great things from a lot of people regarding melatonin. I don’t notice any difference when I have taken it day or night. And from what I’ve read, melatonin supplements may actually not work if taken during the day. This is due to the fact that melatonin is only naturally released in the body at night. So even if you take some during the day, your body realizes that it’s not nighttime, and it may not work as effectively. If it does work for you, awesome. Maybe it’s a placebo effect that I just ruined for you. Let’s pretend I didn’t say anything.
Stay safe on your drive home. Lastly, blast the air/roll down your windows to stay awake or play some loud music. Whenever I can barely keep my eyes open driving home I just think of becoming a trauma patient again and that usually keeps me wide awake. Trust me, STAY AWAKE.
Get home in one piece so you can do it all over again the next night.
Anything else that works for you nightshifters? I’d love to hear it! Thanks for reading.