By Alex McCoy, Contributing Writer, Owner of Fit Travel Life
One of the downsides of being a travel nurse is not always having a say in your shift preference. Sure, you can aim to only work day shift jobs, but if you want to work a specific location in the best time of year you will likely have to compromise in some areas. I know a lot of travel nurses who worked day shift for years that ended up taking a position on nights to get to their dream location.
The key to surviving the night shift is being properly prepared. You are not just working opposite hours—you are actually forcing your body to go against its circadian rhythm which is taxing both mentally and physically. Acknowledge this and embrace it, as it will be the key to keeping your sanity when adjusting to a nocturnal schedule.
Start adjusting your sleep schedule a few days in advance.
While I tend to be an early riser now, I was lucky if I was out of bed before 9 a.m. when I worked nights, and I was definitely not in bed before midnight. If your current bedtime is around 10 p.m. or earlier, I’d suggest trying to push it back a few hours the week leading up to your first overnight.
You could try having a cup of coffee in the evening or make sure to do something besides snuggling up on the couch with some Netflix that night. Do some housework, get in a late workout, or go out with friends to try to stay up late. This way your body with begin to adjust to staying up and it won’t be quite as big of a shock when you have to keep functioning way past bedtime.
Use caffeine strategically.
As much as I’d love to say drinking water and eating healthy food is the key to staying up all night, the reality is that I only survived night shift thanks to some extra caffeine here and there.
The key is to keep from over caffeinating to the point where you can’t also get some quality sleep. Keep an eye on the clock and try to cut off your coffee or soda 5-6 hours before you plan to get in bed. Also, make sure to get enough water mixed in with your caffeinated beverages. Staying hydrated will also help stave off drowsiness.
Bring healthy snacks and lunches to work.
Think of how you feel after you eat a big, hearty Thanksgiving dinner or go to that Superbowl party with all the good snacks and appetizers. Probably ready to take a nap, huh?
Eating junk on night shift will leave you feeling like junk as well. Try to meal prep ahead of your stretch of night shifts, and have an arsenal of healthy snacks you can munch on throughout your shift.
Many nurses like to snack to keep awake, but if you are snacking on high-calorie items you will not be happy with the effect on your waistline. Go for cut up veggies, light string cheese, Greek yogurt, or light popcorn if you need something with crunch. Most cafeteria options will be pretty sad on the night shift, so don’t plan on relying on other sources for those healthy munchies.
Watch your sleep—aim for 7-8 hours per stretch.
Winding down after a night shift can be difficult for some people but it is so important to get quality sleep. Things like sunlight, electronic screens, and neighborhood noise all contribute to keeping our brains awake even when we should be feeling exhausted.
Put your phone away from your bed while you sleep. Wear sunglasses while driving home to dull the bright light. Invest in some good blackout curtains and earplugs so you don’t have to worry about light and sound when you lay down. Do not go home and start a Netflix episode—go for a good old-fashioned book instead.
Protect your sleep particularly between shifts, because on days off where you are trying to flip your schedule you may have to shorten your rest periods a bit. We often underestimate how much poor rest can affect us. Just because you can survive on 5-6 hours of sleep per night doesn’t mean you should!
Learn to say no when needed.
When you are functioning on the opposite schedule from the rest of the world it can be easy to feel the pull of obligations or fun activities you don’t want to miss out on. But once again, just because you can make it somewhere on short sleep doesn’t mean it will be the best choice overall.
I personally only skimp on sleep if it is a once-in-a-lifetime event. A good friend’s baby shower or a family wedding are some of the only reasons I would cut off my much-needed rest. This might sound selfish and people may not understand, but don’t feel bad about protecting your own sanity and health.
And thanks to the beauty of travel, it will only last 13 weeks.
Night shift might not be ideal for your lifestyle, but if you get to live in Hawaii for three months or spend extra time with family for a little while it might just be worth it. The great part of travel nursing is all of the factors including the shift you’re working are just temporary and can be used as learning experiences for what is “worth it” in the future.
Alex McCoy currently works as a pediatric travel nurse. She has a passion for health and fitness, which led her to start Fit Travel Life in 2016. She travels with her husband, their cat, Autumn and their dog, Summer. She enjoys hiking, lifting weights, and trying the best local coffee and wine.
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