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How To Get Better Sleep as a Night Shift Nurse

Courtney Smith-Kimble, MA
Updated December 1, 2022
If you are a night shift nurse, you may find it difficult to get restful sleep. Nurses can use this page to discover sleep tips for getting through the night shift.
A young adult Black woman is pictured stretching on her bed on a bright sunny day. She is smiling and looks as if she has just woken up from a restful sleep.

In today’s fast-paced society, tackling personal and professional responsibilities within the limited hours in a day can lead to a lack of sleep. Working the unusual hours required by a night shift nursing schedule poses additional challenges to getting adequate sleep.

However, sleep plays an influential role in overall physical and mental health. For instance, sleep affects multiple brain functions, making it key to performing your best work. Nurses who work night shifts can use this page to find information and helpful tips on maintaining a healthy sleep routine.

The Importance of Rest for Night Shift Workers

Sleep is an essential function that allows the body and mind to remain healthy and fend off diseases. An inadequate amount of sleep can lead to health issues, such as depression, obesity, heart disease, and cancer. Around 15% of professionals in the U.S. work nontraditional hours or rotating shifts, including night shift nurses.

“Research shows that shift workers get around one hour less sleep than non-shift workers,” explains Daniel Ford, a licensed psychologist and managing director of The Better Sleep Clinic. “Because shift work can result in decreased total sleep time, sleep deprivation, and sleepiness, shift workers can benefit from sleep schedule interventions that aim to increase total sleep time.”

Some intervention tips that could maximize rest for night shift nurses include:

  • Exposing your body to bright light during work hours.
  • Minimizing exposure to light during sleep hours.
  • Planning and sticking to sleep schedules.

Understanding Circadian Rhythm

Circadian rhythms work alongside the body’s master clock in the brain. Operating on a 24-hour rotation, this internal system manages the sleep cycle. The circadian rhythm typically responds to external stimuli, such as light or brightness and darkness. People with an aligned circadian rhythm experience restorative sleep, while individuals with an unaligned circadian rhythm may experience insomnia.

The best sleep schedule for a night shift nurse includes fixed sleep intervals. Wayne Leslie Ross, a researcher with over 15 years of experience in the field of sleep studies, offers suggestions for professionals with nontraditional schedules.

  • What To Do: “Sleeping at the same time and waking at the same time enables resetting of the circadian rhythm,” says Ross, explaining that nurses should consistently maintain their adjusted schedule, even on weekends.
  • What To Avoid: Ross advises night shift nurses to “avoid alcohol, caffeinated drinks, and use of connected devices, social media platforms, and excessive exposure to artificial light before bedtime.”

Creating Bedtime Rituals

Nursing night shift routines should include a bedtime ritual, allowing professionals to create subconscious habits that inform their brain when it is time to rest. Bedtime routines can reduce the anxiety and restlessness that arouse the sympathetic nervous system and lead to insomnia.

Ross, along with Tasha Holland-Kornegay, Ph.D., an entrepreneur, author, and motivational speaker, proposes several bedtime habits for night shift nurses:

  • Identify a timeframe to sleep and stick to the schedule everyday.
  • Avoid stimulating beverages and technology before bed.
  • Hydrate regularly and maintain a healthy diet.
  • Pack healthy snacks for work.
  • Develop a calming bedtime ritual, like reading, meditation, or journaling.
[and] for a refreshed morning,” says Holland-Kornegay.

Impact of Light and Noise Exposure

Noise can lead to fragmented sleep, including noises that do not cause individuals to wake up completely. The body spends time in different stages of sleep and even light noises can disrupt this process while loud noises can cause the body to release adrenaline or cortisol.

Rosa Crumpton, an RN whose work focuses on helping healthcare professionals find work-life balance, suggests a few tips on controlling light exposure at bedtime:

  • Use blackout curtains to make the room as dark as possible.
  • Consider taking low doses of melatonin if necessary.
  • Try ear plugs.
  • Play white or ambient noises to encourage better sleep.

Food and Exercise Effects on Sleep Quality

Regular exercise and a healthy diet offer multiple health benefits, including better sleep. Crumpton suggests night shift nurses find time to exercise regularly.

Practitioners should pay attention to how their body responds to exercise to determine what time of day is ideal for their workouts. Night shift nurses should also monitor their fluid intake to remain hydrated.

Nursing night shift routines should also emphasize healthy eating. Ross notes that “many hospitals do not have a 24-hour cafeteria and there may not be many options to order or get food from outlets during the night.” Additionally, late-night restaurants may not offer healthy food options. Night shift nurses may want to consider packing nutritious lunches and multiple snack options to maintain a healthy diet.

The Skill of Taking Naps

According to Ford, “taking a nap before or during the early part of a shift helps decrease sleepiness in shift workers.” Naps can provide an energy boost if taken at appropriate times and under certain conditions, like creating a restful, distraction-free environment in a dark place.

Night shift nurses may also want to consider these tips on taking quality naps:

  • Taking naps at the same time everyday or at the same time as needed.
  • Keeping naps under an hour to reduce the likelihood of feeling groggy upon waking up.
  • Night shift nurses prone to inertia can try drinking a caffeinated beverage right before sleeping. This method allows caffeine to enter the bloodstream within 20 minutes, which can provide individuals with an energy boost by the end of a short nap.

In Summary:

  • Nursing night shift routines can disrupt your circadian rhythm, reducing access to restorative sleep. Nurses should set a sleep schedule and stick to it.
  • A healthy diet and staying hydrated can lead to better sleep for night shift nurses.
  • Night shift nurses can experience quality sleep by incorporating regular exercise into their schedule.

Meet Our Contributors

Portrait of Wayne Ross

Wayne Ross

Wayne Leslie Ross is a researcher with over 1.5 decades of experience in the field of sleep studies. He also works with InsideBedroom, providing analysis, input, insights, and advice on the vast subject of sleep, how to get better sleep, and related details and information. He is an avid reader, writer, editor, artist, and outdoors person with a flair for the culinary arts.

Portrait of Tasha Holland-Kornegay, Ph.D., LCMHC

Tasha Holland-Kornegay, Ph.D., LCMHC

Tasha Holland-Kornegay, Ph.D., LCMHC is an entrepreneur, author, and motivational speaker. She began Wellness in Real Life (WIRL) after a battle with burnout encouraged her to help other health professionals cope with their high-stress careers.

As a licensed mental health clinician, Holland-Kornegay, who holds a doctoral degree in counseling (human services), has a background in counseling and is the founder and owner of Our Treatment Center, PLLC. Her life as a health professional and a businesswoman are linked together by her passion for helping others.

Portrait of Daniel Ford

Daniel Ford

Dan Ford is a licensed psychologist and the founder and managing director of The Better Sleep Clinic. Ford specializes in treating insomnia, circadian rhythm, and other sleep disorders. He has worked with people from all walks of life, from sleepless parents to Olympic athletes and military special forces. As a father and military vet, Ford understands what it is like to suffer sleepless nights and is passionate about educating the public on the importance of sleep for health and well-being.

Portrait of Rosa Crumpton, RN, BSN, BS, MBA/HCM

Rosa Crumpton, RN, BSN, BS, MBA/HCM

Rosa Crumpton, RN, BSN, BS, MBA/HCM helps healthcare professionals gain clarity, fulfillment, and balance in their lives.

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