Nurses Are Talking About: Working the Night Shift

Laura A. Stokowski, RN, MS


January 11, 2013

In This Article

Sleep, Glorious Sleep

"People become obsessed with sleep when they work nights."

Sleep, and how to acquire enough of it during the daytime, was the chief topic of discussion among night shift nurses. Trying to simulate nighttime is the most common method used to counteract the body's strong inclination to wakefulness. A nurse said, "I am very dedicated to giving my body and mind enough rest." A word of caution was offered to those embarking on the night shift life: "You have to find time to get good sleep during the day or you cannot make it through the night. You feel sick to your stomach, and your body shuts down no matter how hard you try to stay awake."

But how much sleep is "enough"? The typical nurse contributing to this discussion reported sleeping for a total of 6-7 hours between consecutive night shifts. Several nurses commented that their ability to sleep waned with age. "When I hit menopause, getting more than 4 hours of sleep at a time became more difficult," said one.

Not only must night nurses wrestle with how much sleep to get, they must figure out when to sleep. People who work conventional daytime hours seldom go to bed the minute they get home from work, yet this practice is common among night shift nurses. In fact, most nurses who joined the discussion claimed to go to bed either immediately or right after having breakfast. Others, fewer in number, prefer to stay awake a couple of hours, then sleep and arise again just before it is time to leave for work -- a pattern that matches that of a typical day worker. After arriving home, these night shift nurses wind down by eating, reading, checking email, socializing, or watching TV. "It's called having a life," said one.

The Sleep-Splitters

A pattern that seems to be more common in mothers with younger children is splitting daytime sleep into 2 sessions. These nurses typically sleep after their children go to school, sleep until they come home, get up, and then take a nap before going to work. Nurses who work 8-hour shifts can wait until their children go to bed to take a final nap before work.

"The best way that I could adapt to working nights (poorly as it was) was to split my sleep up. When I worked full-time nights I slept about 4 hours in the morning after work and took a 2- to 3-hour nap before going back in," said one nurse. Successful sleep-splitters like this pattern because "it allows me to get things done during the day and get some daylight exposure as well." However, nurses who work 12-hour shifts may find splitting sleep impractical.

Whether you sleep immediately after arriving home from work, delay sleep and rise just before going to work, or split your sleep into 2 sessions is a matter of preference and what works for you and your family. Whatever you do, however, experienced night nurses advise you to "try to be as consistent as possible in your sleep patterns."


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