tired nurse sitting on couch

How to Survive an Overnight Nursing Clinical Shift

Staff Writer
Apr 20, 2022

Few people in the world enjoy working overnight shifts, but as it happens: Someone’s got to do it.

A lot of jobs require 12-hour overnight shifts, but nursing is rather infamous for them. Urgent care always has to be available, which is why so many nurses, at some point in their careers, have to work them. If that scares you, don’t worry: It’s usually a choice, and overnight shifts usually pay more, so most nurses pick working either days or nights and stick to that schedule.

This means you may not have to work overnights in your first nursing job, or ever, but you still need to be prepared for these shifts, because they can be tough. Every part of the nursing school curriculum is designed to prepare you to be a nurse, and your clinical is when you gain the real-world experience like working all night on your feet. If your overnight nursing clinical shift is coming up, don’t panic; just follow this advice.

Practice Staying Up—and Sleeping In

If you’re a night owl, your overnight nursing clinical shift might seem like no big deal. Still, staying up till 2am to study isn’t the same as working on your feet for 12 hours through the night. Whatever your normal sleep schedule is, try to push it back a little more in the days leading up to your clinical shift. Don’t totally shift your cycle, since after your overnight shift ends, you’ll return to a (more) normal work schedule. If you can stay up and sleep in even an hour later, it can help.

Other adjustments like going to the gym at night, and doing housework like dishes at 10pm or midnight, rather than when you finish dinner, can also prepare your body for standing and working when it’s usually sleeping.

Sleep, and Nap, Beforehand

On a similar note, get as much rest the day before your shift as possible. Sleep in late that morning, and if you can manage to carve out even half an hour to nap, do. The more you’ve rested, the more energy you’ll have during your shift, even if your body wants to sleep.

Eat Well and Pack Good Food

If you didn’t remember this from elementary school, you’ve already re-learned during nursing school that the food we eat matters—and affects our energy levels. Before your shift begins, eat some high-energy food like vegetables and complex carbs. You should also pack a similarly nutritious meal, because the cafeteria may not be open, and junk food from vending machine can make you sleepier. Eating high-energy snacks throughout your shift will keep your body’s metabolism going and your energy up.

Keep Your Mind Alert

Some nurses suggest wearing a bright digital watch during overnight shifts to stay focused, even when you’re feeling groggy. Some people sing songs to themselves; others engage in conversation every fifteen minutes; and a few nurses take 30-second breaks and use breathing exercises to remain mindful. Whatever works for you, try it. When you feel sleepiness creep in, engage your mind in some way to remain awake.

Don’t Rely on Caffeine

If you’ve pulled an all-nighter before, you know the power of coffee—but you may also remember that as soon as its effects wear off, you crash. That’s a risky method when you’re caring for patients and supporting staff during your overnight clinical shift. If you need a boost, try dark chocolate or a little green tea to supplement more natural efforts at staying awake.

Remember That Tired is Normal

Your clinical supervisor isn’t going to expect you to be as perfectly alert at 5am as other RNs will seem to be. She knows this is practice and experience, so make sure your effort is on your work and assigned tasks rather than fighting off any hint of drowsiness. Most nurses who work overnight shifts have a schedule and rhythm, so they’re used to it. No matter how much you prepare, your overnight nursing clinical shift will be difficult—and that’s normal. As long as you still do your work well, you’ve succeeded.


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