The Best Sleep and Relaxation Tips From Nurses, Night Shift Workers, and People Who Can Fall Asleep Anywhere

published May 21, 2021
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Welcome to Restival Season, Apartment Therapy’s series about slowing down, sleeping more, and relaxing however you can — no fancy wristbands needed.

Sleep is one of the most important cornerstones of wellness. However, getting enough quality shut-eye isn’t always easy — or possible — with busy schedules, children, pets, stress and anxiety, and poor sleep environments. If you’re on the quest for more (and better) sleep, I chatted with people who navigate ever-changing sleep schedules, like nurses; bartenders who have to unwind after busy nights; and people who can nap anywhere, even on planes and public transit! Their insight may help lead you to your next great nap or night of sleep.

How to Fall Asleep at Any Time, According to Nurses…

Nurses and other medical professionals work round-the-clock shifts that can change in an instant, and many become experts in getting quality sleep no matter the time or place. “I worked every shift possible in the emergency department: 11 a.m.-11 p.m., 3 p.m.-3 a.m., 7 p.m.-7 a.m., and 7 a.m.-7 p.m.,” says Sarah Pelle, emergency department RN in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. “For night shift workers, blackout curtains and a sleep mask are must-haves. They were my saving graces when I worked nights.” Pelle is also a fan of white noise machines and the Calm magnesium supplement, which she takes before she goes to bed, no matter if it’s 7 a.m. or 11 p.m.

“The best thing is to keep a good environment no matter where you’re sleeping,” says Susan Wik, an OB-GYN resident physician in Omaha, Nebraska. She recommends shades, blinds, or curtains to darken the room, a cool temperature, and perhaps a fan for white noise and temperature regulation. 

To help set your body in “sleep” mode, Wik recommends taking a shower before bed, using a calming essential oil like lavender, and avoiding electronic devices, which can disrupt the body’s natural secretion of melatonin. “Even during a 24-hour shift, I try to wash my face and brush my teeth before laying down to set the tone.” Try to reduce anything that may cause you stress while you try to drift off. “I also run through things and write them down prior to bed so I won’t be overthinking them when I’m trying to sleep,” she says.

… According to a Bartender

Working late into the night — or the very early morning — in a high-energy environment like a bar can make drifting off to sleep when you get home a monumental task. Dylan Nelson, a bartender from Saint Paul, Minnesota, has found some pro ways to unwind after work.

“The biggest thing is not drinking after a shift,” she says. “There’s so much information about how alcohol negatively impacts our quality of sleep. I rarely if ever have a drink after work because when I do, I end up staying up two to four hours later than I would if I didn’t drink afterwards.” Besides alcohol, Nelson recommends staying away from caffeine too late in the day; she calls 5 p.m. her cutoff, though experts generally recommend avoiding it at least four to six hours before bedtime, depending how sensitive you are to its effects.

Nelson also prioritizes eating a nutritious meal while sitting down — not as she stand in the kitchens — when she gets home from work, and recommends helping your brain shift into sleep mode by avoiding social media and screens. She’s also a fan of listening to white noise or binaural beats as she begins to prepare for bed. Most importantly, she prioritizes creating a routine she can stick to every night to give her body cues that it’s time to sleep. 

… According to a Night Shift Worker

Null*, a system administrator, barista, and restaurant host and server, has an ever-changing schedule that requires adapting their sleep schedule often. “Right now I have three jobs. Some days I need to be at all three on the same day — and one of them is 12-hour shifts,” they say. “I try to fit in a nap whenever I can. It helps stabilize my moods.”

Blackout curtains are Null’s number-one tip for better sleep, no matter the time. “They make it way easier for me to fall asleep because not only do they block the light, they also reduce the volume of sound.” Close the windows if noises are keeping you awake, and consider a sound machine or fan to further mask any street noise. Making the bedroom a cozy “nest” helps you relax and better fall asleep, so do what you need to — comfortable blankets, a glass of water, some essential oils in a diffuser — to create an ideal vibe for better sleep.

… And According to Someone Who Can Fall Asleep Anywhere

Lily Crooks of Minneapolis can fall asleep anywhere, and counts white noise and headphones as some of the most helpful gadgets to helping her drift off. “I listen to talk radio very, very quietly,” she says of her go-to sleep sounds. As for items to make an unnatural sleep environment more comfortable, Crooks recommends dressing for the occasion. “Always have something you can ball up and stick behind your head, against your neck, or drape over your face. A cardigan or hoodie is my fave, but [you can also use] a shawl or scarf.” 

If you’re traveling via plane, pack a quality neck pillow to make your journey more comfortable. “Inflatable neck pillows are where it’s at. The squishy ones you can cram into tiny bags just don’t have the support,” Crooks advises. And ensure your seatmates know you’re trying to sleep, not chat. “Cross your arms tight around you as you prepare to sleep. The body language tells others to buzz off and gives yourself a little hug to make you comfortable,” she says.

*Name has been changed to protect anonymity.