Persistence with the Night Shift

I’m still trying to manage my life working the night shift while parenting a young child. While I wish I could engage more with my daughter, I’m grateful that she and my husband are close because of their time together without me. I wish I could give my husband more breaks from caring for our daughter solo. Unfortunately, I can’t participate in family activities like back-to-school nights or family dinners when I work. Truthfully, even when I do NOT work, I’m still exhausted from working night shifts; I can’t participate as much as I want with family activities, even on days off.

It’s a lot of effort for me to focus and maintain my clarity with sleep deprivation. When I started the night shift, I had difficulty sleeping during the day between my shifts and trouble staying alert during my shifts. I’m three months into working nights (7p-7:30a), and I can sleep about 5 hours between night shifts compared to the 3 or 4 I would get before. I am also more alert and have more stamina to last me throughout my shifts compared to three months ago. However, I now have difficulty sleeping at night on my nights off. (It was 2:30 on Monday morning when I started to write this blog post because I couldn’t sleep and wasn’t tired).

Photo by SHVETS production on Pexels.com

Here is how my day(s) off went after my last shift Friday night:

8:30 a – Come home from work Saturday morning, still stressed after a rough night shift – the third of three-in-a-row.

11 a – After showering, eating, and replaying my night in my head, I finally fall asleep – and miss out on my family’s Saturday brunch outing spontaneously scheduled with a friend that morning.

3:30 p – I wake up later than my 1p target. I feel too tired and groggy to join my husband and daughter for their afternoon pool-time. 

7ish p – We have dinner delivered because I’m too tired to help prepare anything.

10 p – Husband wakes me on the couch since I fell asleep somehow. He convinces me to move to our bedroom.

2:30 a – Wake up and have trouble going back to sleep.

4:00 a – Take melatonin, hoping it will help me sleep

6:07a – The time on my clock that I remember seeing before falling asleep

7:35 a – The time I woke up when my daughter turned on all our lights and insisted on noisily searching our room for her lost unicorn.

My husband and I spent the rest of my second day off of work taking our daughter to gymnastics, having family brunch, going to church, and visiting a family friend in the afternoon and again for dinner. I briefly fell asleep sometime in the afternoon after reading with my daughter in her bedroom – before my husband woke me so we could go for the afternoon visit with a family friend. I try to enjoy days off with my family but often feel like a zombie days after I work.

When I work, I’m unable to attain the recommended 7-8 hours of sleep. I don’t think I’ve made up for the sleep debt I’ve incurred and am unsure when, if, or how I’ll make up for it. My sleep schedule is entirely abnormal, and I’m often tired. I schedule myself to sleep during certain times, but my body does not comply. I’ll fall asleep during the day between shifts hoping to sleep 6-7 hours but will often wake up after 4-5 hours. I have blackout curtains, use earplugs, play beach waves as ambient noise, spray lavender mist on my pillows and bedding, and wear a travel eye mask to help me sleep.

Travel Sleep Mask, Lavendar Spray, and Ear Plugs – standard parts of my daytime sleep routine

I don’t have television in my bedroom, and I take all phones out of the room when I sleep. I sleep for longer durations when I eat before going to bed in the morning, take melatonin, and supplement with tart cherry concentrate (which helps regulate melatonin levels). I set my alarm as late as possible before work and try not to look at my clock or phone until that alarm has gone off, even if I am awake and lying in bed for hours. I meditate or pray in bed to relax and attempt to fall asleep again if I wake up before the alarm activates. To stay awake while working, I drink caffeine but avoid it after 2a during my shifts and on days when I’m not working. 

I’m not fond of the idea of having to medicate my body to either sleep or stay alert. In reality, though, I live in a caffeinated culture. Coffee and tea helped me survive nursing school. They also helped me in my first job as a nurse working swabbing shifts before 5:30a. Many people I know consume caffeine daily to be alert or as part of their morning ritual, and they are not nurses, nor do they work night shifts. Maybe I should accept that caffeine (and melatonin) are part of my weekly routine as a night shift nurse.   

To try weaning off some of the caffeine, I’ve tried replacing some of my coffee intake with cacao. It has helped me during the early morning hours at work (when I think it’s too late to consume more caffeine), keeping me up without giving me jitters or hand tremors. My nursing school best friend turned me onto a brand, Crio Bru. According to Crio Bru:

“Brewed cacao is 99.9% caffeine free, but contains theobromine, a naturally occurring stimulant found in cacao that can be longer lasting, milder, and more pleasant than caffeine.”

-Crio Bru (https://criobru.com/pages/crio-bru-brewed-cacao)

It’s roasted cacao nibs that brew just like coffee, but there’s no caffeine. I like to make Crio Bru drink in a french press and keep it sugar-free.

I’ve also discovered a sugar-free cacao powder by ChocoVivo that doesn’t require a french press to prepare (https://chocovivo.com/collections/cacao/products/100-cacao-full-spectrum-cacao-powder). The hot chocolate from ChocoVivo has a thicker consistency since the cacao is not getting filtered out and is reminiscent of the hot chocolate I had with churros in Spain. It’s like drinking a dark chocolate bar. I sometimes like to add a little cinnamon to it.

I’ve been trying various techniques and methods to sleep or stay awake, stubbornly trying to make night shift work, because I eventually want to move out of my current position working with adults and work in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). I explored switching to dayshift when I met nurses from day shift in my cohort who wanted to work nights. However, I stopped pursuing dayshift with my manager when 1) the dayshift nurses changed their minds about working nights, and 2) I realized working the night shift was more aligned with my long-term goal to work in a NICU. 

Because NICU is a specialty that people do not often leave, it is rare for any new NICU nurse to start work during the dayshift. One NICU nurse shared it takes ten years to switch to dayshift in her hospital because people never leave. I have no desire to work nights for ten years, but I am willing to work a couple of years on the night shift to work and gain experience in my dream unit. I know of a hospital in the area that supposedly has their NICU nurses move to the day shift in about 2-3 years, so my goal to to work there eventually. While I’m still adapting to working the night shift, I hope to adjust and thrive in a NICU. I’m using the time in my new grad program to adjust to the night shift, so I hopefully don’t have to struggle so much by the time I land in a NICU. I am making sacrifices now in order to reach my long-term goal to become a dayshift NICU nurse. Right now, the only way I know to get to days in a NICU is to start on nights. Hence, I continue to fight and search for ways to make night shift work for me and my family.

I would love to hear about your sleep hygiene habits and any tips for sleeping. Do you have rituals for bedtime or starting your day (or night)? What are your sleep routines? How do other parents of young children manage night shifts or graveyard shifts? What do you do to ensure you have sufficient energy while you work?

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