How to survive your "sleep on that third shift" life

June 5 | Guest post by Minerva Siegel
Minerva enjoying some of her tricks to getting sleep while working third shift.

My husband is a brewer, and he's worked third shift for a handful of years now. It was so rough, at first! Whenever sleep times are messed with, it's difficult. But getting used to a completely opposite sleep schedule is a nightmare. For the first few weeks of third shift life, he just couldn't sleep more than a few hours at a time. He was exhausted and crabby, and I knew he couldn't go on this way forever. So, I did some thinking and came up with ways to help him…

A curtain by any other name

Buying blackout curtains probably seems like an obvious must, but when I initially went to buy curtains to make our bedroom dark during the day, I accidentally bought "room-darkening" curtains, and they are NOT the same thing as the "blackout" variety! He tried to sleep with them hung for about a week, but they still let way too much light in. In the end, we donated our room-darkening curtains and splurged on heavy-duty, thick blackout curtains.

I got a wrap-around curtain rod to ensure that light didn't peek in through the sides of the curtains, and hung the rod as close to the ceiling as possible so light couldn't come in through the top. A small amount of light still gets through, but the setup works well enough that the bedroom is comfortably dark. 

The trials and tribulations of white noise

We have a ceiling fan, but the whirring of the fan blades wasn't enough to drown out the noise of the dogs and me living our lives by day while he slept. We try to be fairly quiet while he's asleep during the day, but inevitably, the noise we made was bothering him. 

I tried buying just a standard box fan for the bedroom to help with noise, but it was ugly, clunky, and always seemed in the way. Plus, my dogs were constantly knocking it over.

Next, I bought a white noise machine — the kind that comes with a variety of sounds for you to choose to listen to on a loop. I thought "beach mode" was nice, but my husband said they were all to distracting and actually kept him from sleeping. 

Cleaner air = Better sleep?

I thought the air in my house was super-clean before I bought the air purifier. I also invested in a great Dyson vacuum and use it almost daily, along with a Bissell carpet cleaner on all the carpets once every two weeks. And I generally just keep a very clean house. However, the air purifier I bought for our bedroom has made a world of difference. 

The built-in fans on the air purifier make a steady, soothing noise, and it works so well that there's a noticeably different air quality in that room — the air seems to even taste clean, if that makes sense. My husband swears that this helps him sleep better, in addition to the steady noise it makes. 

Brrrr, it's cold in here

Something that helps enormously is simply lowering the temperature. When he comes home from work in the morning, I turn the thermostat down to about 65-67 degrees. When he wakes up in the afternoon, I switch it back to 72 degrees. He says he sleeps better when he's chilly! 

Snuggle up, Buttercup

I upgraded our bedding and even our mattress in a major way when he switched to third shift, because I know his sleep is more important than ever. We invested in The Company Store comforters, and I'll never go back. I love them; it feels like you're snuggling up with a cloud. I also bought these pillows from Amazon, after years of just buying whatever pillows were on sale at Target at the time. I chose them because they had over 12,000 good reviews, but I kept them because they're literally the pillows to end all pillows. They're cool and adjustable, and my husband gets the best sleep of his life with them. 

In addition to great bedding, we dropped some Gs upgrading our mattress to a top-of-the-line Serta. I love our mattress and totally think that it's important to invest in a great one if you're able to, but finding sheets to fit it is a BITCH because it's so incredibly thick. Even most "extra-deep pocket" sheets don't come close to fitting it. I can guarantee that our next mattress will not be as thick. Ours offers a very luxurious sleep, but it's also a pain and expensive, because I have to buy sheets from the manufacturer, and they only come in a few, boring colors (no cute, metallic printed sheets from Target for me!).

Patience is key when switching to third shift life. It's a huge adjustment for your body and your lifestyle. Use that shift differential to invest in blackout curtains, play around with different sounds (fans, air purifiers, white noise machines, etc.) until you find what works for you, adjust the room temperature to your liking, and make sure you have a comfy place to cozy up! A good sleep is essential, and, even though it's work, it's totally possible to get quality rest while on a weird sleep schedule. Good luck!

Are you a 3rd shifter, or living with one? What has and hasn't worked in terms of transitioning your sleep schedule? Comment below! 

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  1. When Husband and I met, we were both third shifters. These days, I get up at five in the morning most of the time. So one of us is always asleep and we basically never see each other. Husband is a heavy sleeper, so I pretty much just have to watch my volume when I talk on the phone. I'm a crazy light sleeper. I use ear plugs and an eye mask every night. We have to keep all the doors between us shut when I'm asleep because he shouts a lot. Ultimately though, I feel like the responsibility for sleeping is on the sleeper, not the awake person. I don't think it's fair to cripple each other's awake time by making the other person compromise their life every day.

    We have problems with other issues related to our schedules. I always wake up to messes I have to clean up. All of the errands and household maintenance are on me because he's asleep when everything's open. And whenever we're both awake, one of us is half asleep from just waking up or getting ready for bed, so we don't get much bonding time.

    4 agree
    • We are having the same relationship issues right now. Finding that balance in managing the home front and relationship when you work opposite schedules.

      Pre-kiddos we both worked nights so we were always on the same sleep cycle. Post-kiddos, I work a 9-5 and he works as a bartender and club security. Which puts all the night time baby responsibilities on me and all the day time school kid responsibilities (up at 6am for school morning drop offs) and day time house management responsibilities (stupid grocery stores only being open during the day) on me. We are working to try to find a balance but it is truly hard when you and your partner are on totally opposite schedules. And that doesn't even touch on the 'ships passing in the night' relationship.

      2 agree
    • I can't really agree with expecting the sleeper to suffer all the responsibility. After all they are contributing to the household by working nights. A bit of respect both ways works. My ex used to expect to slam around and make as much noise as he wanted when I was in nights so I couldn't sleep at all. It took me doing the same to him one night when I was off work to make him realise my sleep was just as important as his.

      1 agrees
  2. Nothing ever worked for me. I worked nights for five years and tried all you've mentionned. The worst was constantly having to switch whenever I had a day or two off.

    I guess some bodies just never adjust.

  3. Guess who is awake after coming off night shift and falling asleep with the kids at 7pm… yep, this gem!

    I agree with blackout curtains (ikea has a new set in that worked great!) and cool air in the bedroom.

    I'm wondering though how others transition? Today I came off shift at 7am, swam then came home and slept at 8:30, woke 12:30 to look after the kids while Mr T worked, but fell asleep with the kids at 7pm… now wide awake at 1am…. arghhhh

    • I don't sleep otherwise it takes me a week to transition. Try skipping nap time. Staying up all day after you knock off then go to bed when the kids do. You should be so tired you sleep through the night and wake up almost normal the next day.

      1 agrees
  4. In my last job, I had the chance of night shift for a little more than month out of every year. This year, I was on nights… while still exclusively breast-feeding our four-month-old. Night feeding is one thing; sleeping between normal daytime feeds is another experience entirely. Luckily, my husband was still home with us, so he took charge during the day (and also nights, while I scampered off to work for 13+ hours while they both slept) and simply delivered and retrieved the baby when it was time to eat. It wouldn't have been doable otherwise.

    A helpful tactic for transitioning to nights was shifting my eating schedule as soon as I could, right down to the content of my meals. Cereal when I got up, lunch in the cafeteria at midnight, etc. A robust supply of low-calorie, high-crunch snacks helped, too. Sometimes, eating was the only way to stay awake.

  5. Even better than blackout curtains, roller shutters installed on the exterior of the window do a fantastic job of blocking out all light. They are common in Europe. In the US they are not so common, but still obtainable. They are pretty pricey though and of course not really an option if you are renting…

  6. The most important thing is prioritising sleep. It seems simple but so many people don't do it. They think oh I'll get up early or stay up late for gym time or shopping or something seemingly ignoring the fact that sleep is the most important thing for your body after food and water.

    Prioritising my sleep means no phones/tablets etc in the dark room especially before sleep. No coffee or tea. Establishing​ wind down sleep rituals to show your body knows it's time to sleep for me that was brush teeth, boil kettle, fill hot water bottle, wash face (no shower it would wake me up), PJ's, lay down, mist room with lavender​ spray, meditate for five minutes then drift off to sleep.

    I was one of the few on my crew at the mine who prioritised my sleep and so performed the best on nightshift, I was a safe worker on nights because I made sleep my goal.

    2 agree
  7. I've worked third shift in the past more than once, and am currently working a very late shift – my usual bedtime is 4am these days. I agree with everything I've read about creating a dark, cool, and quiet environment for sleeping, and prioritizing sleep. I try to have a consistent bedtime and pre-sleep routine, no matter what shift I'm working. I've also found that keeping my sleep schedule as consistent as possible on my days off is really helpful, but then again I don't have a spouse or children I have to coordinate with.
    I'm currently living in an offbeat rental that I love, but it has skylights in the bedroom. Blackout curtains like I've used before not being an option, I have been using an eye mask, and finding the right one made a world of difference! This one is my favorite so far. Weird looking, but who cares?
    White noise has always worked for me, usually in the form of a fan, but where I'm living now I have nearby neighbors whose regular daytime noises (a part-time in-home carpentry business) are loud enough that I have had to switch to earplugs. They took some getting used to, but now I sleep like a baby and am wondering why I haven't used them all my life!

    1 agrees
  8. My husband started working nightshift a few months ago (goes to work at 7:30pm, comes home around 8-9am) and it has been rough for both of us. Thankfully our room is pretty dark and we have a fan for white noise plus he's already a pretty heavy sleeper so usually he's okay. But he has 3 days off a week where he tries to readjust to spend time with me during the day but we're never able to do much beyond grocery shopping because he's so exhausted. Weirdly and unexpectedly his working nights seems to be rougher on me than him. (not that its easy for him). Im unable to go to bed before 2am and sleep fitfully (and I was a poor sleeper before this) because I'm so paranoid by myself in a ground floor apartment because I've never lived alone and have shared a bedroom most of my life. I don't really sleep well until he comes home in the morning and then I'll sleep until 12 or 1 in the afternoon. Which works when my retail schedule is closing shifts. It's absolutely awful when I have opening or early mids. I had to ask to be given 5-6hr shifts instead of the 8-10hr ones they were giving me because I was unable to work, keep up with the housework (because I only work part time I agreed to take on almost all of the housework), and get more than 3-5hrs of sleep and it was making me really sick. I've been doing better since cutting my hours but I still feel like I'm constantly playing catch up and struggling to find a balance. I usually thrive on routine and it's really hard for me to get a standard routine with schedules like ours. I look forward to when he goes back on days. -_-'

  9. I just recently came off working thirds for over a decade. Currently my husband still does.

    1. Yes to the blackout curtains. Even when I have to go to bed at 6pm, they help me fall asleep.
    2. White noise machine of choice in the summer; humidifier in the winter. Trust me on that one. Also if the white noise isn't enough, ear plugs or just putting noise cancelling headphones on might help. If he doesn't toss and turn much in his sleep, hopefully something that close to his head won't keep him conscious.
    4.Food. Whatever ideas you both have about a schedule, throw it out the window. When our days off line up its nice we can both sit down at the same time together. The rest of the week I make dinner, feed myself, then fix him a plate for when he gets up/pack leftovers for my husband to take. Along with extra healthy snackies so he isn't depending on gas station crap, vending machines, or the fast food chains not far from his work. Mine was easy. I work in a grocery store; I could grab pretty much any thing quick and easy to shove in my face. Strangely it wasn't easier when we both worked nights.
    3.Take a good quality multi-vitamin, and add extra D, C and zinc. I also put in extra iron while I was at it since my numbers always run low. Have him go to the doctor and do a blood test (if money will allow or insurance covers) to see if he's low/deficient in some areas, then recommend adjustments. My husband did this years ago and his current cocktail DEFINITELY helps him out. For women we already don't get quite enough D even with a healthy diet. But missing that daily "sunshine vitamin" absorption WILL hurt if he makes a long haul of keeping vampire hours.
    4. Try to get that sunshine absorption in at least once a day for 20 minutes. Its super hard. But along with being good for the body, its good for the mind. Winter isn't the only time we are susceptible to the blues.
    5. Sleep patterns will change in the long term. I've cycled through them all. From needing to go to bed as soon as I hit home (while it was still dark outside), staying up for a couple extra hours/getting up with enough time to feed myself and go. Sleeping in solid stretches, or broken up cat naps. Don't fight it too much. Yes I've taken Nyquil, Benadryl, and other OTC sleep aides. And yeah some REALLY strong nightcaps. But eventually your body gets used to whatever it is your giving it to get some shut eye and create dependency. Plus I found fighting it only made me fell worse in the end, and I wasn't terribly productive at work. Not to mention a jerk to my husband.
    6. Speaking of patterns; if his days off are back to back, don't change the sleep schedule or routine. Yes it means less time to spend with you. Trying to get back on track is a pain in the butt. Its why I saved changing my schedule to daytime friendly hours only on vacation (when I would be gone 7-10 days in a row). Unless there is a thing which his presence is super necessary, work around him as much as you can. And make sure family/friends know his schedule, too. There were plenty of times we had to say "sure we can be there, but we'll be along later." Or we need to leave early to get someone in to bed for a couple of hours. If they know its his day to work, it'll also save on making too much racket when someone drops in to say hi.
    7. Find good breakfast spots in your area. Meet up when he gets out for the day. Breakfast dates are the best. And even better, no noisy cleanup after! (but your husband might want to skip the coffee).

    One more thing: when it comes to caffeine intake, I found cutting it off after 11pm, meant I had a shot at sleeping in the morning when I got home. A cup or two of Sleepytime tea, and I'd be dead to the world for at least 7 hours. More if its the "extra" Sleepytime (with valerian root).

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