Night Shift Nursing: How to Survive Overnight Hours

Each blog post is dated and contains accurate information as of that date. Certain information may have changed since the blog post publication date. If you would like to confirm the current accuracy of blog information, please visit our ABSN overview page or contact admissions at (866) 664-9033.

Hospitalized patients need round-the-clock care. Night shift nursing offers benefits like the potential for higher pay and greater autonomy. Yet, it’s not without its challenges, like sleep deprivation and increased health risks associated with shift work. Night shift nurses need to prioritize taking care of their overall health.

nurses looking at clipboard

Medical emergencies don’t always happen during the daytime. Hospitalized patients need round-the-clock care and monitoring even after being stabilized, making health care a 24/7/365 career field. Night shift nursing professionals are crucial in supporting a patient’s recovery.

If you’re considering a nursing career that involves working from dusk to dawn, you’ll need to know how to survive the night shift while supporting your health and wellness. Here’s a breakdown of what to expect and what you can do.

Understanding Night Shift Nursing

What exactly does night shift nursing look like? Like day shift nurses, these overnight clinicians typically work eight- to 12-hour shifts, usually between 7 pm and 7 am.

A nurse’s role during the night shift is like that of a day shift nurse. However, hospitals typically staff fewer doctors, aides, and other professionals on the night shift, meaning resources may be strained.

During a night shift, nurses must perform the same patient care duties as day shift nurses, including tasks such as:

  • Reviewing and updating patient records
  • Administering medications
  • Setting up IV fluids
  • Repositioning patients
  • Helping patients with toileting
  • Emptying catheters and surgical drains
  • Answering call lights
  • Making the rounds and ensuring patients are comfortable
nurse portrait of nurse wearing scrubs and surgery garb

Still wondering why you should make a career change to nursing? Explore the many benefits of nursing as a second career.

Benefits of Working the Night Shift

If you’re skeptical of night shift nursing because you are a “day person,” this nursing career path might not be a fit. However, if you’re up for the challenge, the benefits of working the night shift may outweigh the disadvantages.

Night shift nurses can typically expect higher salaries than day shift nurses, intended to compensate them for the schedule. Registered nurses (RNs) who take the night shift generally have more autonomy than their day-shift counterparts.

It’s often thought that the night shift is slower, with a less demanding pace of work. Indeed, patients don’t typically have visitors at night, so the job requires less interaction and communication with family members. Plus, sleeping patients can sometimes be less demanding.

However, some departments (intensive care unit, cardiac unit, etc.) can be as busy at night as during the day, and patients often don’t sleep much. Night shift nurses can still expect to be kept on their toes throughout their shift.

nursing student working with sim manikin

Challenges Night Shift Nurses Face

Night shift RNs face many of the same challenges as day shift nurses, such as juggling many different patients while ensuring no detail is overlooked. However, they also have the added challenge of the night shift nurse sleep schedule.

The human body has an internal circadian clock powered by exposure to sunlight. It regulates when humans typically feel sleepy and wakeful. Shift workers follow a schedule that goes against their biological inclinations regarding when to sleep and awaken. Because of this, a night shift nurse’s sleep schedule can present challenges, including health risks.

Night shift work is associated with a higher risk of metabolic syndrome, diabetes, heart attack, stroke, accidents, and even colorectal cancer. Furthermore, shift workers who have trouble sleeping during the day and who become sleep-deprived are prone to symptoms such as:

  • Reduced attention span and slowed cognition
  • Irritability and anxiety
  • Poor memory retention
  • Impaired decision making

Some night shift nurses also find that shift work makes it challenging to manage their personal and family responsibilities. However, others may find that their schedule makes it easier to tend to their personal lives. For example, a nurse might work the night shift to be home when the kids come home from school.

Although it’s important to be aware of the potential risks of shift work, it’s also worth noting that following healthy tips for night shift nurses can help one achieve a better life balance and minimize the potential risks.

Health and Wellness Tips for Night Shift Nurses

If you’re thinking about working the night shift, be proactive about caring for your health and wellness to minimize the health risks and enable you to enjoy your work more.

Determine Your Ideal Sleep Schedule

Some overnight nurses prefer to hit the hay shortly after coming home from a shift. This allows them to spend the late afternoon and early evening hours with their family. Others prefer a reverse schedule, staying awake for a while after the shift ends and waking up shortly before the next shift starts.

nursing student standing by wall with NDMU logo

Whichever schedule works best for you, make sure it’s consistent. You’ll enjoy a better quality of sleep (and likely have fewer problems with insomnia) if you keep your sleep/wake times consistent — even on your days off.

Create a Good Sleep Environment

Sleep hygiene is essential for everyone, but particularly for shift workers. Night shift nurses may need help sleeping during the day, especially when adjusting to their schedule. Creating a sleep-inducing environment is essential. Try these sleep tips for night-shift nurses:

  • Upon waking up, get a healthy dose of sunlight or turn on a sunlamp or light therapy box.
  • Reduce light exposure ahead of your bedtime.
  • Hang blackout curtains in your bedroom.
  • Use an alarm clock that doesn’t have illuminated numbers.
  • Wear a sleep mask if your bedroom allows light to filter in, such as from the hallway.
  • Wear earplugs if you have other household members (and ask them to try to be quiet during your sleeping hours).
  • Use a white noise machine. Even if you also wear earplugs, a white noise machine can help.
  • Invest in a comfortable mattress.
  • Keep your bedroom comfortably cool.

Follow a Predictable Routine Before Bedtime

Creating an ideal bedroom environment is helpful, but it’s only one component of sleep hygiene. What you do before bedtime can be just as crucial for helping you fall asleep at a nontraditional bedtime. Try these sleep hygiene tips:

  • Avoid screen time (all electronics, including your smartphone) for at least an hour before bedtime.
  • Limit caffeine intake.
  • Avoid alcohol. While it may help you fall asleep initially, alcohol disturbs your natural sleep cycles.
  • Eat a light meal before bedtime; heavy meals may make sleep harder to come by.
  • Follow a consistent bedtime routine, including yoga, reading, or meditation.

Lastly, be sure to get to bed at the same time every day.

Take Coffee Naps at Work if Possible

ABSN student in sim lab

Nurses don’t always have the luxury of taking a nap break during their shifts. If the opportunity arises, however, consider seizing it. Of course, check your hospital’s policies to ensure that napping during break time is allowed.

A coffee nap can help refresh you during a long shift. Drink a cup of coffee, then settle down on a comfy couch to sleep for 20 minutes. When your nap is over, the caffeine will kick in and help you feel more awake.

Avoid Using Too Much Caffeine and Sugar

Although coffee naps can be a lifesaver for a tired night shift nurse, it’s best to avoid relying on caffeine too much, especially in the hours leading up to your typical bedtime.

Some shift workers turn to sugary snacks for a quick energy boost instead of caffeine. However, refined sugar causes an energy crash later, so try to limit your intake. Instead, choose healthier foods with natural sugar, like fruit.

There are many different types of nursing careers to choose from. Check out 10 types of nursing specialties you could pursue.

nurse speaking with patient in room

Care for Your Overall Health

As part of their work, nurses often prioritize the needs of others over their own, yet it’s crucial to maintain your overall health to position yourself to help others. If you’re sleep deprived, for example, you may be more prone to making a medical mistake, like giving a patient an incorrect medication dosage. Ensure you follow the same healthy habits you encourage your patients to adopt.

Seek Support from Your Loved Ones and Coworkers

Shift work isn’t always easy, but support from others can help. Talk to your loved ones about the challenges you’re having. They may be able to offer practical assistance or simply a sympathetic ear.

Coworkers are another invaluable source of support for RNs. Whenever you have the time and ability, check in on your fellow nurses and see if they need help with their patients. They’ll likely respond in kind by helping you when you need it most.

Visit Your Doctor Regularly

Everyone needs regular wellness exams, even nurses, and especially night shift nurses. Stay on top of your health by getting preventive screenings when appropriate and talking to your doctor about any changes to your health. In addition to visiting your primary care doctor regularly, consider using other health and wellness resources, like chiropractic care and massage therapy.

smiling nursing student

Ready to Tackle the Challenges of Nursing?

Notre Dame of Maryland University (NDMU) takes pride in preparing our nursing school graduates to tackle any nursing challenge confidently. With our Accelerated 2nd Degree BSN (ABSN) program, you can leverage your non-nursing college degree toward earning a nursing degree in as few as 15 months. Plus, unlike many other ABSN programs, NDMU empowers students to choose between online or on-campus coursework so they can learn in the way that best fits their needs.

With Academic Success Coaches and a dedicated nursing school faculty, Notre Dame is a top choice for career switchers. Contact our admissions counselors today and take the first step toward a meaningful career in nursing.