5 Survival Tips for the Night Shift Nurse

Being the night shift nurse is a grueling job. Though, it is the shift many nurses start on in their career. I have worked as a labor and delivery nurse for the last 10 years, 8 of them on the night shift. I have come up with these 5 tips that helped me get through it with two kids, a husband, and a dog.

Night Shift Nurse Survival Tips

These are the best tips for surviving night shift. It’s one of the most difficult shifts to get through, but these bits of advice can help make it a little better.

#1 Schedule It Right

Many nurses, like me, are mothers. As a mother, you have many responsibilities and sleep is never a priority, especially on the night shift. No one will understand. You can tell your mother that you worked last night, and she will still want to go shopping at noon, thinking that was enough sleep.

Let me tell you, it is not. I tried to explain it to my husband one time by saying, “OK, so if you go to bed at 10, can you get up and start your day at 2 am, or even worse, make dinner, check homework, and chase the toddler?” He tried to understand.

When I worked my twelve-hour shifts, I would ALWAYS schedule myself three shifts in a row. Was that a lot? My goodness, it was. Was I exhausted? Of course! Then why three twelve-hour shifts in a row?

Your body, at least in my case, never adapts to a night shift. Three in a row made it easier because my body got “used” to the schedule on the second night, and even though it was so hard to get motivated for the third night, I knew after that I would be done. Though, you have to find what works best for you.

#2 Get the Blood Pumping

Exercise needs to happen for the night shift nurse. Sometimes, you get downtime at work, and many nurses take that time to eat something sugary because of fatigue.

The struggle comes when to decide to exercise when you are completely exhausted. For myself, I liked to work out when I woke up, immediately, even before my first cup of coffee. I would run for about 30 minutes, and then, go pick up my children from daycare/school, and make dinner before work. It helped to clear the cobwebs from my brain before dealing with life.

My friends like to work out after work because it helped them fall asleep. Try both and see which works better for you.

#3 Modes to Fall Asleep

For the night shift nurse, trying to fall asleep sounds like it would be simple because you are so exhausted, but sometimes the adrenaline rush of work keeps you awake. Some tips for falling asleep:

  • A warm shower – this worked for me every time!
  • Supplement – some people use Melatonin, Benadryl, or other sleep aids (Ask your doctor which would work for you).
  • Dark room – I always made my room a “cave”. Invest in some room darkening curtains. It will help you fall and stay asleep.
  • Comfortable bed – You have to go to your room, not the couch. Treat your sleep after work your bedtime. This sounds like common sense, but many nurses treat it as a nap.
  • Turn off your phone – If you can, shut off the phone, or at least only push important calls through. If you have a house phone, do the same thing. Many sales calls happen during the day, and you don’t want to wake up to that.

#4 You are What you Eat

Eating for night shift nurses is difficult because you are so tired that the body craves carbohydrates and sugar. If you can, try to pack your lunch with foods to eat every three hours or so. Before going to work, many nurses make dinner for their families. Some nurses cannot eat before work, others do.

Personally, I always ate before work because, in the nursing world, you never knew what you were walking into. Some nurses were never hungry and would pack smoothies or soup to eat throughout the night. This is a good idea as well. Examples of bad habits include fast food, takeout, or sugar all night long. Try to be health-conscious when packing lunch with foods that contain plenty of fruits and vegetables along with protein.

You will feel a difference when you wake up the next day depending how you ate through the night.

#5 Behind the Wheel

This is more important than anything else on a night shift. Driving home can be the scariest time of the day. Many night shift nurses, including myself, have driven home from work not remember how we got home. I always said that I would be better driving drunk (not that I do) than driving after a night shift, and I still agree.

Some tips to stay awake on the drive home:

  • Carpool – Taking a friend with you on the way to work can help so much because you can keep each other awake
  • Phone a friend – Keep each other engaged in the conversation
  • Window down, radio up – Ok, everyone would always tell me this tip on a night shift, but that fatigue behind the wheel didn’t matter to me. If you drive a convertible, take that top down! 

If you try these tips and still cannot keep your eyes open, find a safe place and set an alarm. There have been times I have stopped in a parking lot for 15 minutes and fallen asleep. I had a friend who fell asleep in the fast-food drive-thru and another who swerved into oncoming traffic and was in a terrible accident. It is just not worth it, if you are sleepy, sleep in a safe area for a few minutes.

There are a very select few of night shift nurses who enjoy the graveyard shift. We do it for many different reasons whether it’s because we have to because that was the only shift open, or because of our family commitments. Whichever is the reason, be sure to take care of YOU. It is a dangerous shift for our health, but someone has to do it (along with our holidays and weekends)!

Want more resources for surviving on night shift? Check out these tips to stay awake on night shift. And no matter what shift you are on, be sure to try these nurse self care tips. And if all else fails, these night shift memes will at least leave you laughing.

What survival tips do you have for the night shift nurse?

Janine Kelbach

About the Author
Janine Kelbach, RNC-OB is Registered Nurse with 10 years experience as a Labor and Delivery nurse. She is a freelance writer, virtual assistant, and nurse business coach at www.writern.net. She is also a wife, mother to two boys and one great dane dog.

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5 thoughts on “5 Survival Tips for the Night Shift Nurse”

  1. Alicia Horton SN

    These are great tips I have been on the night shift for many years and can say I practice some of these points first hand.

  2. Nights are really tough. I’m a night owl by nature, so I would be staying up all night regardless of which shift I work. I do think you have to take extra special care of yourself when you are a night shift nurse or you’ll get exhausted in a hurry.
    But there is a lot less politics on nights because most of the administrative staff aren’t there. I’ve always preferred the atmosphere of nights and the nurses seem to be a calmer, less gossipy group.

    I’ve been offered quite a few day shift positions, but I I’m staying where I am.

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