3 Strategies for Nurses to Stay Awake During the Night Shift

two nurses and a doctor sleeping on floor

We sometimes call the night shift a graveyard shift because graveyards are quiet and they aren't too hard to manage. But for a nurse, night shifts are quite the opposite. Patients depend on nurses to keep themselves awake and alert. In fact, there's evidence that fatigue can impair a night nurse's ability to make decisions, integrate information, make plans and execute them, and stay vigilant–all of which come at a serious cost to patients' well-being.

If you're thinking about taking a nursing job on the night shift, you certainly can pull if off, but you'll need some preparation and dedication to stay sharp during the night hours. Here are some foundational principles that will help you along the way.

Set a sleep schedule and don't deviate from it.

Without question, the most important strategy for staying awake as a night nurse is getting enough sleep when you are off the clock. It's a common myth that sleeping in on the weekends is a good way to make up for lost sleep during the week, however, that is not a real solution. Sleep loss is cumulative, which means it can begin causing problems as soon as you're in "sleep debt." It's unlikely that two days of sleeping in can make up for five nights of too little sleep. Instead, it's best to establish a strict schedule that consistently allows you enough time to work, sleep, and keep up with other daily tasks and responsibilities.

Committing to a sleep schedule also means making sure you sleep soundly during the night. Generally, it's a good idea to turn off the ringer on your phone when you go to bed, and to tell friends and family ahead of time that you won't be available during the hours you'll be asleep. Do you what you can to reduce noise and light in your room, as too much of either will make it harder to fall and stay asleep on schedule.

Keep your mind active.

If you notice yourself fading at work, remember that you're surrounded with opportunities to engage your mind. The easiest way is to try talking with your co-workers, and keep the conversation going. Talking about things you're excited about and plans you have can boost your energy and your mood. If there's no one to talk with, get up and move around.

Busy yourself with organizing something that needs organizing, or take a short walk. The worst thing you can do is allowing your mind to wander while your body is stationary. It's a sure recipe for getting tired and falling asleep.

Use caffeine, and do it early on.

It's definitely not a cure-all, but caffeinated drinks like coffee or soda can provide you with a significant boost in energy almost as soon as you've taken a few sips. 200mg of caffeine (the amount in 1-2 cups of coffee) is proven to improve performance and accuracy for health professionals who work long shifts overnight. However, it is important to know your limits and not overdo it, as too much caffeine can cause jitters, restlessness and the inability to focus.

Also, it's important to use caffeine early in your shift, as using it later could cause problems in your ability to sleep after work. It's generally a good rule of thumb not to drink caffeinated beverages within 6 hours of when you plan to head to bed. 

As a registered nurse, in order to take care of your patients, you need to take care of yourself. Working the night shift doesn't have to mean struggling to perform at work–it just means you have to be more careful about staying well rested and prepared for tiredness.

RNs, is there anything we've missed? What helps you stay alert during the night shift?

Contributed to jobs.net by Kim Evans

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