How to Adjust Your Sleep Schedule to Work Night Shifts

Whether it's working in a hospital setting, as a night manager at a hotel, in a 24-hour convenience store, a late-night diner, or other shift work, countless jobs that may force you to work at night.

These late hours can be hard on the body, and if you don't adequately adjust your sleep schedule, you may quickly find yourself suffering from insomnia and sleep deprivation.

Woman in eye mask asleep in bed
Seb Oliver / Cultura / Getty Images

Adjusting Your Sleep Schedule

It's difficult to maintain a non-traditional sleep schedule, but many people are able to do it successfully.

First, it's key that you minimize your exposure to morning light when you come off your shift. If possible, wear dark sunglasses when leaving work. Try to minimize light exposure until after you have slept.

As in all situations, it'll be important to establish a regular sleep schedule and consolidate your sleep periods.

That is, rather than sleeping for a few hours at times scattered throughout the day, try to sleep in one long stretch as you would at night. Your body will establish a new circadian rhythm, allowing you to be awake during the night and asleep during the day.

Circadian Rhythms

All species of animal, including humans, have circadian rhythms. Circadian rhythm refers to your innate light-dark cycle, which is controlled by your biological clock. The length of a person's circadian rhythm is typically about 24 hours.

Your biological clock depends on your genetic make-up. Genes and the proteins that they encode can affect the functioning of your biological clock. More specifically in mammals, like humans, the biological clock lies in areas of the brain called the suprachiasmatic nuclei.

Over time, circadian cycles can adjust to external timing cues. For example, your circadian rhythm can adjust to regularly working night shifts.

Once your circadian rhythm adjusts to the night shift, your body will naturally prepare for sleep when you get off work.

Tips for Better Sleep

If you are having difficulties sleeping long enough to feel rested, there are a few simple guidelines you can follow.

  • Pick a time that you want to go to sleep, and then sleep as much as you can.
  • When you get up, stay up. Don't allow yourself to go back and sleep more.
  • Go to work or do whatever you have to do until your next scheduled bedtime. Then go to bed at that time.
  • Sleep as long as you can.

Eventually, you will build up enough "sleep debt" that you will be tired enough to sleep for a longer period of time.

In time, your body will become used to sleeping and working during these non-traditional hours. Exposure to light when you get up and minimizing exposure right before you go to sleep will also help.

In addition, it's important to follow basic sleep guidelines to improve the quality of your sleep.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Improve sleep by avoiding light.

  2. National Sleep Foundation. How to sleep well when you work the night shift.

  3. Cleveland Clinic. Circadian rhythm disorders.

  4. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Sleep deprivation and deficiency.

By Brandon Peters, MD
Brandon Peters, MD, is a board-certified neurologist and sleep medicine specialist.