If you are a nurse who enjoys getting your work done with few interruptions and you like having the time to get to know your patients and coworkers, consider working the night shift. For night shifters, the trade-off to an unconventional sleep pattern is a (mostly) pleasant work atmosphere. At the same time, there is certainly a learning curve involved in adapting this lifestyle. Surviving the night shift like a pro lets you focus on enjoying the benefits.
Get some sleep the day before your shift
Prepare for your first night shift by taking a nap that day. Yes, there are plenty of superhuman nurses who come in for a night shift without napping — they are the reason we see signs outside the hospital that say “heroes work here.” However, you will thank yourself when the 3am slump rolls around if you took a decent nap the day before.
Some nurses will attempt to stay up late the night before their shift, followed by a day of sleep prior to the start of their shift, but this is a learned habit and may not work for everyone. If you aren’t a night owl, get up at your ‘regular’ time and aim for a nap that is at least 2-4 hours long prior to your shift.
Working nights can make it tempting to chase a cup of coffee with a Monster energy drink, but be careful not to overshoot your caffeine intake. The FDA recommends limiting caffeine consumption to 400mg per day, about two small cups of coffee. Keep in mind that although your patients are “sleeping” at night, there will be plenty of opportunities for an adrenaline rush to wake you up on any given shift.
After having your last cup of coffee, remember to drink lots of water during your shift. In addition to staying well-hydrated, eating healthy foods will help you feel less sluggish in the morning. Avoid eating sugary processed foods that cause insulin spikes. The crash from a sugar high can make night shift exhaustion hit even harder. My favorite lunch to bring for the night shift was quinoa and chicken stuffed peppers, which served as a nutrient-dense and protein-packed meal. Some nurses swear by the ‘small snacks only’ rule and do not eat any full meals during their night shifts.
Create a welcoming sleep space
When you become a night shifter, you will quickly realize that the sun is your biggest foe, and blackout curtains are your best friend. If you are traveling or living in a space with odd-shaped windows, use your nursing innovation skills to create makeshift blackout curtains. I have seen nurses use everything from aluminum foil to black contact paper to block out the sun. However, it’s best to check with your landlord before putting up any “window treatments” that may affect your deposit.
Consider your comfortable sleeping temperature and program your thermostat to automatically adjust while you are sleeping to keep you warm and cozy, or crisp and cool if that’s your preference!
Other products that can help block unwanted daytime stimuli are eye masks, earplugs, and sound machines. Many smartphone features can help you sleep better, too, such as “do not disturb” mode. You can also Be sure to check out the Calm app, which offers bedtime stories and soundscapes to help you ease into and stay asleep.
The physical exhaustion from a night shift can be brutal, and the thought of working out after a stretch of tough nights may not sound so appealing. However, maintaining a regular exercise routine will help you stay healthy and mitigate the effects of an interrupted circadian rhythm. Even on those especially exhausting days, going outside for a walk or run will boost your mood and can help you start maintain a feeling of normalcy.
Own the unconventional lifestyle
When you work the night shift, the rules of ‘normal life’ go out the door. For instance, it’s totally fine to enjoy a bowl of spaghetti at 8 am! While developing your own regimen for survival, your best references are your coworkers. Take advantage of the downtime by getting to know your colleagues and learning others’ tricks for flipping from day to night. There is nothing like the camaraderie of a night shift crew, so be prepared to make lasting memories with your fellow weirdos.
To take the next step in pursuing a career as a night shift nurse, view current job postings on Vivian Health.
Written by: Alexa Davidson, MSN, RN