Night Shift For Newbies

Not everyone LIKES night shift, but all of us can survive it and many (if not most) of us have to work it at one time or another. Here's how to survive. Nurses General Nursing Article

Night Shift For Newbies

Most of us don't get much choice over whether or not we work nights, although we might get a choice about when. We also get a choice about how we handle our night rotations. There are pluses and minuses to working eight-hour shifts, to working twelves, to working straight day shift, straight night shift or rotating. That's for you to decide for yourself but here are some tips that have helped me and some of my night shift colleagues survive and thrive on the graveyard shift.

Attitude is everything

You can moan and whine about your lousy fate and getting stuck working graveyard shift, or you can approach it with a positive attitude. Guess which one is more pleasant and might possibly even be more fun?

Night shift can be fun

Often there's some downtime (not as much as some people think) where you can sit and chat with your coworkers and get to know one another. You can pick each other's brains about what to do in case of x or y and learn tips and tricks from the experienced nurses on your shift. I met my husband working night shifts with him, and our first date was an eight am drink after work. Just us and all of the local alcoholics bellied up to the bar. Drinks after night shift got to be a Monday morning tradition and soon the entire shift was congregating for one -- or more -- drinks at the Scarlett letter. Because we got to know and like each other outside of work, we became a cohesive group and we had each other's backs. Years later, I still miss the teamwork and camaraderie.

Get your sleep

Take your sleep seriously. I've known more than one new nurse who regarded the days before and after her night shifts as days off and spent them cleaning, shopping or having fun. It's tempting, especially when we all know there aren't enough hours in the day but it's a dangerous precedent. Your body cannot function without sleep and sooner or later your brain won't function either. Worse, you may not realize when you're making bad decisions and overlooking the obvious. Install black-out curtains in your bedroom, invest in an industrial strength fan to block out the sounds of barking dogs and lawn mowers and take Ambien or Benadryl or whatever you need to sleep. If you cannot afford blackout curtains, aluminum foil over the windows works, although your neighbors may think you're growing marijuana in your spare time. (but that's another story for another article.)

Tell your mother, your sister, your best friend and your boyfriend that 9am to 5pm (or whatever works for you) is your sleep time and you are not to be disturbed unless there is blood (lots of it) or flames. You'll have to tell them more than once and sometimes less than tactfully. Some people won't get it until you call them at 3 am to discuss your life insurance needs or to chat about your cousin Hilda's new man. If you absolutely have to be available for emergencies with children or aging parents, get a beeper or a cheap cellphone and don't give anyone the number except for one person whom you trust to recognize an emergency and not to disturb you unless it truly is one. He might not realize this, but your husband is just as capable of discussion Timmy's misbehavior with his teacher or meeting Ellen at the emergency room.

Get some exercise

Go to the gym before work, swim after work or walk on your break. You know you need to do this, and night shift doesn't make it any less necessary.

Eat. Eat real meals

Don't make the mistake of thinking that because it's night time you can snack all night without consequences. I have dinner with my husband for breakfast, leftovers for "lunch" at 1 am or thereabouts, and breakfast when I get home before I go to sleep. (if I don't eat, I wake up starving after far too little sleep.) That schedule may not work for you but whatever you do, eat meals and drink water. You need it.

Drive home safely

It can be done, even by those of you who are absolutely certain it cannot be, at least by you. I've driven home with the windows open and the radio going full blast, singing along with the most obnoxious songs on the radio. Getting angry helps me stay awake, hence the radio tuned to right wing talk shows. There are days I've bargained with god -- "just let me stay awake until the next exit and then I'll pull over and nap, god, honest!" sometimes I do pull over and nap -- even five minutes may be enough to get you home in one piece. Some people drink coffee and swear it doesn't keep them from sleeping once they get home, and some people eat breakfast on the way home. Figure out what works for you and do it.

Avail yourself of the opportunities for afternoon coffee with your friend the stay-at-home mom on your Wednesday off or breakfast with your sister after your shift and before she goes to work. Meet your family for church at 8 am on Sunday and go to bed afterward. Chat with your friend on the opposite coast in the wee hours if you have time at work, or on your night off. You may not have Saturday night off every weekend, but you can make the most of the time you do have off. Make the most of the opportunities to look up procedures, study the disease process you're most likely to encounter in your patients or make drug cards. There's often time in a night shift to do those things that you can't do during day shift when visitors vie for your attention.

Ask your colleagues at work (and on for strategies that help them survive night shift, and if you have a great tip pass it along. I'd love to hear what works for you.


Ruby Vee has worked straight days, straight nights and rotated. There are pros and cons to each of those, but there isn't always a choice. Here's some of what she's learned along the way.

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Thank you for your great article. When I worked full-time nights, before I had a husband and kids, I usually stayed up until about noon. Then I slept 'til about 7 or 8 pm. In the olden days before cell phones, I sometimes took my phone off the hook in another room.

When I had kids, I slept during the day, and frequently took a nap after they went to bed. It also depends on the shifts - 8 or twelve hours - what time you need to be there, etc.

Trying to eat normally and not snacking all night is very important. Keep hydrated.

Again, thanks for addressing this topic.!

Specializes in LTC.

I get a really good nights sleep the night before I do a night shift. Then I will nap from 2-5. Have dinner. and Nap again from 6:30-9pm. I'll have a snack and a cup of coffee and go to work. I sleep from 9-3 and 6:30-9 if I have to be back at work that night. If I don't I'll sleep from 9-5 and go to bed as usual that night.

I've cut back on the snacks. I bring fruit, and those special k chips, and I'll have water. If I feel myself sinking around 4am. I'll have juice and an ice cream and that wakes me back up.

Disconnect your doorbell! Or at least leave a laminated note that asks uninvited visitors to schedule an appointment prior to knocking. This has the bonus of ridding you of salespeople on your days off too!

Specializes in Community, OB, Nursery.

We disable our doorbell. Also, I'll throw in my suggestion to have white noise - a fan, a white noise machine, etc. That has been my saving grace, even more so than earplugs. I have two fans; I turn them both on high, and I don't hear lawnmowers, noisy kids, company if we get any, or anything else but my alarm. My fans practically eliminated the need for earplugs.

I had blackout curtains, earplugs, and a death threat out to my family if they disturbed me. I really miss night shift. I had time to actually calm restless patients, give a few backrubs, lotion some feet, and TALK to them. I studied some when I went back to school too. Best of all, running errands, shopping, and dentist/Dr appointments were never a problem and the stores were never crowded.

The bright side of night shift-the marathon of a 12 hour shift is a pleasant jog most of the time, instead of the 6 hour morning sprint then the 5 hour afternoon sprint broekn up only by the 30 minute break to scarf down lunch. I worked my night shifts at a hospital that served the full dining room menu from 1 am to 3 am.

Specializes in Foot Care.

Don't eat junk food on nights. Your body requires the best nutrition possible - lots of fruit and veggies, yogurt, nuts and seeds, hard cooked eggs, etc. - we need to compensate for the physical challenges of tampering with our circadian rhythms.

Also, the drive home includes a LARGE glass of ice water. If I have to pee, I can't fall asleep.

Working nights, I got very little sun exposure, and was surprised to find out that my Vitamin D level was in the sub-basement, despite the fact that I take Viactiv. You might like to talk to your doctor about taking some extra Vitamin D--it really made me feel a LOT better.

Specializes in Non-Oncology Infusion currently.

GREAT ARTICLE and oh so true! Wish I could have read something like that when I began my night tour years ago ;?

I have worked nights (by choice) for 30 yrs (part time). I love the climate of the hospital.....and it can change a lot in the course of a night. More patient interaction and reassuring (everything is scarier at night!) is a plus. Night shift colleagues are like a big family ;) You have less resources when things get busy, so you really pull together and help each other out. Attitude is EVERYTHING. Listening to your body=of key importance. When I work and sleep.....I WORK AND SLEEP! I don't get up for activities that may interrupt my sleep pattern. You have to find out what works for you and go with it. And a big YES on the Vitamin D idea=necessary.

Doing errands/shopping while the rest of the world is working=PRICELESS!

Also......something very comforting about EXITING the work place, with your work day successfully behind you and seeing everyone else just beginning theirs;)


Specializes in Psych ICU, addictions.

When I worked nights (not in nursing), the thing that helped me the most was keeping the same hours even on my days off. Long story short: would sleep during the day and stay awake at night. If I had to do something during the day, I either scheduled it before 10am or waited for the late afternoon/early evening.

I had tried to go back to a day existence on my days off but I found that I lost not one but two days in trying to transition. So it was easier for me to adapt the vampire existence. However, also keep in mind that I lived in NYC at the time, where it is possible to sleep all day, be awake all night and still have plenty of things to do to make life interesting :)

I love working nights, I just wish my current circumstances would allow it. Oh well.

Specializes in PeriOp, ICU, PICU, NICU.

Great article!

I love going shopping at wee hours of the morning (no customers) and getting housework and time to myself when the rest of the world sleeps.

As far as converting to sleeping at night with the rest of the family on your off days.......I go straight to work on my last three day stretch, nap for about 3 hrs. Get up, keep myself busy and go to sleep that night with them.