Night Shift Nursing: Tips for Survival and Sleep Schedule

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By Paula Rouse

June 6, 2021



Thriving on the Night Shift: Survival Tips and Sleep Schedule Strategies for Nurses

Why is it that the 12-hour shift from 7 am to 7 pm is the shift that nobody really wants to work, and those of us that choose to work the night shift because we love it are just seen as psychotic? Night shift is certainly not for everyone, and when you ask nurses why they work the night shift, most of them are obligated due to their facility not having openings on days.  

You will find that there are usually more needs posted for the night shift for an assignment in terms of the travel nurse world. There are always day positions as well. I’m just pointing out that the needs for the night shift are always greater. Why is this? Mainly because the night shift goes against your body’s natural wake-sleep cycle. With this in mind, here are my 5  tips to help you survive the night shift.  

night shift

1. Sleep during the day

For those that sleep during the day, this process is an art form that you have to master if you’re going to survive on the night shift. I need complete darkness and silence in my room, including blackout blinds or shades, blackout curtains, and an eye mask. For the silence because the wonderful thing about sleeping during the day is that everyone else is awake and someone is always doing yard work. For silence, I either use a white noise machine or earplugs, sometimes both, depending on how much I need to drown out. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep between your shifts, at least 6-8 hours.  Before your first night shift, try and get eight hours of sleep or sleep in super late that day. I usually stay up till 4 or 5 am and sleep in for as long as I can. For me waking up early and doing a lot before my shift, and trying to take a nap before work makes me more tired and groggy, but some nurses prefer this approach.

2. Establish a bedtime routine

If you’re working your night shifts in a row, which I recommend making it easier on yourself and getting back to a normal sleep schedule once your workweek is over, then creating a bedtime routine is huge. Your routine should include anything that helps you relax or unwind after work and gets your body ready for rest. My routine includes getting home, taking a shower having a cup of hot tea, or a glass of wine, depending on how good or bad the night was. I either read or journal for about twenty to thirty minutes to decompress from everything that happened during my shift and during my commute home because this can also be stressful. No one wants to sit in traffic for thirty minutes after working 12 hours, but sometimes, depending on where you live, that’s your life.

night shift

3. Do not eat before bed

Not everyone agrees with this, but I mean, do not eat right before you get into bed when I say this. Of course, after work, you’re going to be hungry, and nothing makes you feel better after a rough night, like some good comfort food to wash all that stress away. This is not good for you, though try to eat at least two hours before you go to sleep. Eating right before you lay down leads to weight gain and feeling bloated. Also, you’ll find you will not sleep as well if you eat super heavy right before you sleep. I usually eat on my way home from work. I make up some instant oatmeal after  I clock out and eat it during my commute home. If you are going to eat right before sleep, try something light, like a small salad or fruit.

4. Healthy habits during your shift

Getting through the shift is a struggle on its own for most of us. It’s super busy in the beginning, then settles, then picks back up, then hits a wall around 0300/0400 while trying to stay awake during your shift to avoid crazy amounts of caffeine or sugar. Crazy, I know, considering those are the things you want most at 3 am when you’re trying to stay awake. Consider making some healthier substitutions such as green tea, drinks with fresh juices, or yerba mate.  Snack wise chooses healthier options that boost energy like nuts and dried fruits, apples and peanut butter, veggies, and hummus.  These will give you a nice little boost and keep you from gaining that night shift weight; secondly, if you find yourself getting tired, go for a walk around your unit or climb a flight of stairs anything to get your heart rate up and get you through the rest of your shift.

5. Enjoy your days off

Try to give yourself at least three to five days off between your night shift stretches if you can, especially if you have to flip back to a day shift schedule. On your days off, get plenty of rest, hydrate, exercise, and try and maintain a healthy lifestyle. This will help you so much. When you take care of yourself when your body is functioning on a normal sleep schedule, it will be easier to maintain when it’s not on one.  Relax and treat yourself when you can try and get a massage, do yoga, go for a hike, whatever you do to relax, do that. Lastly, spend time with your loved ones with your crazy vampire schedule. You probably haven’t seen them, and sometimes comfort and affection from the people we love are what we need most after working.

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