Night shift survival guide: a nursing student shares her 9 top tips
Tried-and-tested tricks will help you not just cope, but make the most of working nights
Before starting my nurse training I worked in the care sector for around two years. One of my roles was as a mental health support worker in a supported living facility, where I got my first taste of doing night shifts.
I was really nervous in the run-up to my first night shift, searching the internet for hints and tips on how to stay awake, what I should eat, and how long I should sleep before and after the shift.
My previous experience of working nights doesn’t mean I find them easy, but it did give me a bit of a head start for my first night shift as a nursing student, which was on an acute female mental health ward.
It took me some time, and a bit of trial and error, to find out what works for me when on nights. Everybody is different and what works for me won’t necessarily work for you, but here are some of my top tips for surviving night shifts as a nursing student.
Change your routine
The day before a night shift, I try to stay up until just after midnight. To keep myself awake, I delay my evening routine, so I eat and shower later, and won’t get into bed until it’s time for me to sleep to stop me from nodding off too early. So that I can have a nap in the afternoon on the day of my first night shift, I set my alarm for early morning, around 6am. It can be quite hard to get up at this time but if I don’t I will find it harder to sleep later.
While preparing breakfast I also prepare the food I will be taking with me for my shift. I don’t take as much food on nights as I don’t really get hungry, but I always take something so that I have a choice. I usually choose a piece of fruit – bananas are good – something small and sugary, and a one-portion packet of cereal.
After breakfast, I head to a gym class or take my dogs for a walk – doing a bit of exercise tires me out so I’m ready for a nap later on. I then have lunch as normal and try to go to sleep early afternoon, aiming for between four and five hours. When I wake up my routine is pretty much the same as a morning one: I have my meal before work, shower and get ready for my shift.
When I started doing nights I found I wasn’t drinking enough water, so I now take a large reusable water bottle that I keep topped up throughout the night. I try not to have any caffeine after 3am as this affects my ability to sleep during the day.
‘Invest in an eye mask – my extra-soft one has been a lifesaver when working nights’
The most difficult time for me on nights is between 2am and 4am, which is usually when your body is in deep sleep. If I feel myself starting to become tired, I try to have something small and sugary to eat and do simple tasks that keep me busy, such as restocking trolleys, organising the storage cupboards or getting on with a university assignment.
By the end of my shift, I’m usually starving. If I have another shift that night, I treat myself to a small take-away breakfast on my way home. I would also recommend investing in an eye mask – I treated myself to an extra-soft one that has been a lifesaver when working nights.
‘Make sure your family and friends know you are on nights so they won’t try to contact you in the middle of the day’
Re-set your body clock
Getting back to your usual sleep pattern can be difficult. After my last night shift, I only sleep for a couple of hours then go to bed very early, around 7-8pm. As I haven’t slept much during the day, I can sleep right through until the following day, which helps my body clock return to normal.
Inform friends and family
Make sure your family and friends know you are on nights so they won’t try to contact you at 3pm, which is essentially your 3am. My friends know I tend to go off the radar for a while when on nights as I am usually asleep when they are awake and vice versa.
Maximise the benefits
Try to make the most of your night shifts as a nursing student. They don’t tend to be as busy as day shifts so you have plenty of opportunities to ask questions, especially if you have a shift with your mentor. Night shifts are also a good opportunity to do some research on the area you are working in, revise for an exam or work on your university assignments.
Molly Kiltie is a second-year mental health nursing student at De Montfort University in Leicester