How to Optimize Your Sleep Schedule on Night Shift
Updated: Jan 6
Most nurses work night shift at some point in their career – some while rotating shifts, others until they can gain enough seniority to choose their ideal shift, and still others choose night shift because they prefer it.
Nurses who are new to night shift often ask how to optimize sleep on a night shift schedule. Not getting enough sleep can put you at a higher risk for obesity, insomnia, high blood pressure, diabetes, menstrual irregularities, irritability, and more. It is no surprise that reducing these risks is such a high priority for off-shift nurses. Here some of the most current methods to staying alert during night shift and staying asleep during the day.
If you're a night shift nurse, focus on getting adequate sleep by going to bed right away after your shift and take naps if needed. Drink small doses of caffeine during the beginning of your shift. Seek out bright light before and during your shift and wear sunglasses on your drive home to support your natural circadian rhythm. Take a 30-minute nap during night shift if you can. When you go to bed, use black out curtains or a sleep mask, and turn off any electronics that could disturb you. Utilize white noise to block outside sound by turning on a fan or wearing ear plugs. Exercise to decrease fatigue, increase energy, and improve your immune system on a night shift or rotating schedule.
How to protect your sleep
When you get home from work, follow the same bedtime routine and go to bed as soon as you can after getting home. The longer you stay awake, the harder it can be to get to sleep due to your exposure to light. Make your bedroom as dark as possible with black out curtains and/or a sleeping mask. Use ear plugs or ambient noise, such as a fan. You can also play white noise on your phone on YouTube or other apps. Cooler bedroom temperatures have shown to improve sleep quality. Make sure your phone and all other electronics are silenced and avoid screen time before bed.
Some nurses have success with hanging a sign on their front door that they are unavailable until 4pm daily (or whatever time is best for you). This can help prevent people from disturbing your sleep by knocking on your door or ringing your doorbell during the day.
Most adults need 7-9 hours of sleep. Break these into 4-hour naps if needed, or try to get a full night’s sleep after work. Some people are naturally early risers on their days off. These people may need to take more naps on off days due to getting up earlier. On the other hand, night owls may achieve adequate rest by sleeping in. Find what works best for you, whether it’s a full block of sleep or multiple naps.
Do not use alcohol as a sleep aid. Even though it can seem to help you fall asleep initially, it disturbs your sleep cycles later on, resulting in a less restful sleep. Also, avoid caffeine for 6 hours before you plan to go to bed.
How to get adequate rest when rotating from day shift to night shift
If you have a few days before night shift starts, slowly adjust your sleep and wake times to your shift schedule. If this is not possible, do the best you can to get enough sleep surrounding your work days. The ideal schedule will vary for each individual, so find what works best for you. For example, I’ve found that no matter how late I go to bed in preparation for my first stretch of night shifts, I still wake up early. Therefore, instead of going to bed late, I go to bed and wake up at my normal time – then take a nap during the day.
On the other hand, I know plenty of nurses who find success staying up as late as they can and sleeping during the day before a night shift. Play with different sleep schedules and see what works best for you – then stick to it. A good way to learn this is to listen to your body by sleeping when it wants to sleep until you find your ideal sleep habits.
Drinking enough water can help prevent you from feeling that hungover-from-swing-shifts feeling. If you are only peeing every 4 hours, you need to drink more water. Stay away from processed foods and eat lots of veggies. Pack your lunch and meal prep – food delivery options at 2am are not the healthiest. EXERCISE. Exercise helps you fall asleep faster. It also helps you stay awake and alert. Your immune system will improve, and you’ll decrease your chances of obesity and heart disease.
Finally, know that you must advocate for yourself. Are you rotating multiple times within a week? Keep getting “fake days off” (24 hours to switch from a night shift to a day shift rotation)? This can make you miserable and unproductive. I remember those days!
See your supervisor or manager and explain, assertively and kindly, that you are concerned about your health as well as your patient’s safety. Tell them about any issues you’ve been having with your sleep schedule and everything you’ve been doing proactively to improve it. Ask if there is any wiggle room in the schedule for what you need – more than 24 hours between rotated shifts, night shifts stacked together instead of apart, etc. Know what you want and ask for it! You might be surprised in the response you get.
How to stay alert while working night shift
Some studies show that drinking a caffeinated beverage in small doses (about a quarter cup of coffee a few times throughout your shift) can help keep you alert more than drinking a large amount in the beginning of your shift. Nap for about 30 minutes during night shift if you can – this has shown to improve alertness even more than caffeine.
Use bright light before and during the beginning of your shift to stimulate your circadian rhythm and promote alertness through your shift. If it’s light outside before your shift, go for a walk or exercise outside to increase energy.
Eat healthy snacks and hydrate. Try chopped vegetables that are full in fiber and avoid processed and sugary foods that can increase fatigue. Again, drink plenty of water! Be active during breaks – if you have spare time, walk laps around your unit or climb the stairs a few time to boost alertness and burn calories.
Why you should get your family and friends on board
Nurses who work night shift can often feel out of sync with their loved ones due to opposite schedules. Help your family and friends understand that 1pm for them feels like 1am for you!
Find creative ways to stay connected. Some nurses find success staying in touch with family or friends by email or text, or a white board/notebook at home to communicate. You might call a friend on your way into night shift or get breakfast with family after (this always worked well for me!). Depending on when night shift starts, you can also go out for dinner or attend an event before your start time, as long as you are well rested and prepared to work.
Conversely, some nurses have little trouble adjusting to family needs and keeping up with friendships. They find that working night shift allows them greater flexibility to attend family or friends’ events or functions. If so, great! Whether or not night shift interferes with your home or social life, make boundaries with family and friends and ask that they respect your sleep time. If you know that you will likely be sleeping until 4pm, tell your family that you will not be able to answer phone calls or attend events before that time.
Finally, schedule your appointments, errands, and time with loved ones just as you would if you worked the day shift – around your sleep schedule. Set a healthy example to loved ones by keeping adequate sleep as a top priority. This will allow you to avoid health problems, improve your energy and productiveness, and be a better nurse/friend/mom/sister/son/fill-in-the-blank. Remember that to take care of others, you must take care of yourself first!
What are some of the best night shift sleep tips that you’ve used? What can you share with others that might help them when adjusting to a night shift schedule? Let me know!