5 Ways Nurses Can Improve Their Sleep Habits

Staff Writer
Apr 27, 2022

You know how fantastic you feel after one night of great sleep: happy, alert, engaged. And we all know the bleary-eyed drudgery the day after getting no rest. Nurses face special challenges when it comes to establishing good sleep habits: night shifts and changing schedules, high-pressure workdays, and emotional entanglements with patients, just to name a few. There are many aspects to a nurse’s job that make it hard to shut off an active mind and get good shut-eye.

There’s no magic bullet, but here are five techniques to improve your long-term sleeping habits as a nurse.

1. Establish a sleep routine

As humans, we find patterns comforting because we know what’s coming next; in this case, the end of the line is sleep town. Creating an evening routine is especially helpful for nurses who may have variable schedules and work night shifts.

The activities you choose to include in your routine don’t have to be closely tied to sleep, like drinking a warm glass of milk, for example. Choose a series of actions that can be done at any time of day. For instance, take a bath, read a book, sketch, listen to music, or feed your cat. The key is to find two or three quiet activities that you find soothing and might look forward to. Begin your routine an hour before bedtime, and do it in the same order each evening to set the pattern. Before you know it, you’ll be relaxed and sleeping like a baby in no time!

Related Resource: 5 Great Things About Night Shift Nurses

2. Exercise before your shift

Regular exercise is always a top tip for staying healthy, and it’s true for sleep health as well. But don’t wait until the evening sets in to hit the gym or go for a bike ride. Try to get exercise in at least three hours before bedtime. We know your life is busy, so get creative:

  • Ride your bike to the clinic, hospital, or bus stop.
  • Go for a fast-paced walk during a shift break (even a few minutes can add up).
  • Take the stairs, not the elevator.
  • Get up 20 minutes early and go for a run or brisk walk.

If you do have time for a workout, planking and calf raises are particularly helpful for nurses. Regular exercise may be the very best way to welcome a good night’s rest.

Related resource: These Are Time Management Skills Every New Nurse Needs

3. Watch your diet

Exercise is a no-brainer, but certain foods can also be a recipe for a restless night. Foods that are sugary or spicy, or have a high acidity are off the table. Pizza (sorry!) is a big offender. The high acidity of tomato sauce can irritate your stomach and keep you up; that goes for orange juice, too. We know sugary cereal is a great late-night snack, but sadly, sugar affects your sleep, with a glucose spike and subsequent crash. Spicy foods like tacos can also disrupt slumber.

If your stomach won’t stop grumbling, try foods that are high in protein like hardboiled eggs. Low-fat dairy like cottage cheese is also a good one to keep on hand. Cherries contain natural serotonin, and avocado has essential magnesium. Like exercise, you’ll want to snack at least an hour before bedtime, since eating anything right before bed can keep you up.

Related Resource: 50 Self-Care Ideas for Nurses to Recharge on Days Off

4. Write it down

Being physically fatigued is one thing, but when your mind is spinning in circles, it can be hard to stop. Anxiety about the day’s events — a tense exchange with a coworker or the dreaded, “Did I forget to do x, y, and z on my rounds?” — can keep your mind abuzz for hours.

Keep a notebook around to write down your thoughts, perhaps as part of your sleep routine. When you write down the things you need to remember, your mind can release them. You can write about things for which you’re grateful, or ideas you just can’t get out of your head, also as a means of release.

5. Lighten up

Light levels affect sleep in many ways. In fact, exposure to light stimulates a nerve pathway from the eye to parts of the brain that control hormones, body temperature, and other functions that make us feel sleepy or awake. Good, solid hours of sleep require darkness, mirroring natural circadian rhythms. This is true whether you’re working a day or night shift — so you may need to use blackout curtains or put a towel under the door to block out light from other rooms. Even small LEDs put out a lot of light promoting wakefulness, so make sure to cover LED lights like those on a charging cable. And don’t forget to turn off tv, phone, and tablet screens!

Try different combinations of techniques to prepare your body for sleep, and establish a consistent pattern that is unique to your habits and fits your lifestyle. Remember, it takes 21 days to build a habit, so be gentle and give yourself time to adjust. Soon, you’ll be rising bright-eyed and ready to shine!

How do you get the rest you need? Share your sleep hacks and tips on our Facebook page!


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