Tips for Succeeding as a Night Nurse

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night nurse reviewing patient record on ipad

When the hustle and bustle of a rehabilitation hospital slows to a crawl, night nurses ensure that exceptional care continues after dark. While the position can require some getting used to, there are also ample benefits.

“Night shift made me a better nurse,” said Kelly Davis, regional chief nursing officer for Encompass Health’s Central operating region. “I gained a wealth of knowledge from tenured nurses who loved the night shift and made it their lifestyle.”

If you’re entering the world of night-shift nursing, these tips can help ease your transition into this unconventional yet rewarding role.

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Embrace the Independence

Davis believes that in the inpatient rehabilitation setting, night shift is a great opportunity to learn foundational nursing skills without the distraction of a patient’s therapy schedules, mealtimes and family visitations. It also promotes independence in new and tenured nurses alike, as there are not as many senior leaders available after dark.

“You may be the only department in the building,” Davis said. “Your daytime peers are fast asleep, so you can’t exactly phone a friend! This teaches you to really call on your training and to develop mentorship and trust with your night supervisor and colleagues.”

That independence requires a nurse to be confident in their knowledge and have a heightened sense of discernment and critical thinking. Extra caution is always practiced in patient safety, so calls to physicians or caregivers are sometimes needed—and that’s OK. But when a situation arises that the nursing staff can handle appropriately and confidently, preserving a caregiver’s rest times away from the hospital is certainly an act of kindness.

Protect Your Sleep Schedule

You’ve probably heard the proven tactics for better sleep, such as darkening your room using blackout curtains, silencing your phone, avoiding stimulants such as caffeine, and indulging in a relaxing practice such as reading or taking a hot bath before bed.

What is discussed less often are the social boundaries you’ll need to set. It may take time for your family or housemates to accommodate your new sleep schedule. Your loved ones may be accustomed to calling you (or pinging you in a non-stop group text) during the middle of the day, and you’ll need to be firm in asking that they respect your schedule. You should also vocalize the need for quiet during the daytime if other people are at home making noise during your rest window.

If these boundaries are consistently violated, you might try alternatives such as a white noise machine or sleep-safe headphones to ensure a comfortable noise level. If you have pets who sleep in your room but are known to cause sleep disruptions (such as unprompted barking or taking up too much space) it may be time to train away the co-sleeping.

Snack Right or Plan Meals Ahead

When it’s time to fuel up, the right nutrients can be a game changer for night nurses. Certain foods can boost your mood, elevate your energy levels and support memory and mental clarity.

“It’s very tempting to eat junk food in the evenings and snack your way through a shift. Meal planning is a smart idea! Otherwise, you may grab fast food on the way to or from work each night,” Davis said. “That’s hard on both your wallet and your health.”

If you don’t want a heavy meal in the evenings but want to resist the junk cravings, create a well-rounded snack pack for each shift. Consider purchasing meal-prep containers with divided interiors to keep your snacks fresh and pre-portioned. Set aside 30 minutes each week to prepare these in bulk. Your kit could include sliced fruit, multigrain crackers, cheese, carrots and dip, a sweet treat and some additional source of protein such as nuts, a tuna pouch or peanut butter with apple slices. Don’t forget to pair your meals with plenty of water.

Champion Your Patients’ Rest

Realize that quality sleep is critical during a patient’s recovery. Imagine how you would feel in an unfamiliar bed with unexpected noises, new medications, lacking many of your creature comforts from home. Sleep suddenly feels like a tall order. Empathizing can help you curate the type of sleep environment that you personally would want in a hospital. Dim the lights in the unit, close a patient’s door if it’s safe to do so, provide sleep aids such as aromatherapy if appropriate, consider implementing sleep rounds and reduce disruptions.

“Remember that people are trying to sleep, even though your work continues. You may be rustling through drawers to restock supplies, having a unit meeting or charting on the keyboard, forgetting to take stock of the noise. Always think of the patient,” Davis said.

Enjoy the Change of Pace

Some people may think night nurses simply mill around the hospital, silently checking in on patients as they sleep, but there’s more to it. Preparing patients for rest can involve medication distribution, bathing, wound care and one-on-one education. There’s also an opportunity for activities before the lights go out, such as game nights and movie nights to give patients extra mental stimulation and socialization.

“Of course, you get to know patients on a more personal level simply because there’s quiet time to connect,” Davis said.

It’s human nature that worries can grow and fears loom louder in the still of the night as patients find themselves alone with their thoughts. Nurses are at the bedside to hear a patient’s fears, concerns or other late-night musings. This shift is the perfect pace for nurses who enjoy a little less bustle and want to be a listening ear to people in need.

Stay Informed

Nursing leaders have an obligation to keep night shift staff up to date on hospital news, policy and protocol changes, patient care education and more. Working at night doesn’t mean you shouldn’t stay in the loop! If you’re not getting the updates you need, take the initiative to remind your manager that you expect to have routine huddles on the night shift and the opportunity to attend town hall meetings, educational seminars, etc.

“With that in mind, nursing leaders should be careful not to contact night-shift nurses during the time when they should be sleeping,” Davis said. “This helps ensure a good work-life balance and supports their physical and mental wellbeing.”

The content of this site is for informational purposes only and should not be taken as professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding any medical conditions or treatments.