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How to Fall Asleep Faster While Working Shifts

Daytime sleeping hours are precious when working the night shift. Here’s how to fall asleep faster so you can max out your daytime Zzzz’s.

The need for speed is real when it comes to getting to sleep after a night shift. If you’re like me, you want to fall asleep as quickly as possible so you can max out your available sleep time. Let’s say you’ve established a sleep schedule that works for you. You’ve committed to a solid sleep routine. You’ve communicated your sleep needs to your nearest and dearest and your sleep room is ready. What next? Here’s a collection of tips and tricks that night-shift workers swear by to send them off to la-la land. 

 

Manage sleep anxiety 

If you don’t struggle with fears about getting enough sleep, skip to the next part. But for me, the absolute hardest part of sleeping while working nights was my worry about not getting enough sleep. Counterproductive? Absolutely. Also a real problem? You betcha! 

I’m guessing that I’m not alone in this—other shift workers have told me they also stress about not falling asleep fast enough and not sleeping long enough. The stress alone is enough to rob us of our rest!

My personal preoccupation with getting enough daytime rest meant that I needed to get my sleep early in the day. By having many hours ahead of me to sleep, I ratcheted down the sleep stress and fell asleep faster. While this may not be ideal for everyone—many shift workers report that delaying their sleep till later in the day helps them perform better throughout their shift—it was the best way to quell the sleep anxiety monster so I could fall asleep fast. 

One of the other helpful things I did to tackle my stress about shift-work sleep was to have a backup plan. Jackhammering on my road? A neighbour’s crying baby? A marching band practising outside? No problem—I had an alternative place to crash lined up. I never had to actually use my backup plan, but just knowing I had an alternative worked like a charm. After all, every shift worker needs access to a quiet, dark, comfortable place to sleep!

 

Cuddle up with a weighted blanket 

Long used by savvy parents to soothe children with sensory needs, weighted blankets are now used by many adults for better sleep. A weighted blanket acts like a hug to help people fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer. They are great for reducing stress and increasing relaxation. 

These heavy blankets are made with glass microbeads that are sewn into a duvet to add heft, with gridded stitching to make sure the tiny weights remain uniformly distributed. Weighted blankets usually come with a removable, washable cover. They are made in various weights, usually ranging from 15 to 25 pounds. (Buying tip: Ideally, a blanket should be approximately 10% of your body weight.)

Research so far is limited but shows the deep pressure simulation of weighted blankets may be an effective tool in reducing anxiety and increased melatonin production. This is why weighted blankets are now being used for chronic pain, restless legs, night terrors, generalized anxiety, and more. While working nights, I didn’t use a weighted blanket for every daytime sleep, but I found it worked like a charm when I felt restless or too wired after a hard shift. For the price point, it might be worth a try. 

 

Try ASMR (even if it’s weird)

Ever feel so relaxed when a hairstylist brushes your hair that you instantly feel like sleeping? There’s a way to replicate that feeling: autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR). It’s a phenomenon that describes a euphoric relaxation that washes over someone as they watch videos or soundtracks. That relaxation then triggers sleepiness.

  • ASMR soundtracks contain soothing sounds like soft voices, scratching, tapping, brushing, whispering, and more. 
  • ASMR videos show people doing quiet, calming tasks, such as folding towels, brushing their hair, or flipping magazine pages. 

 

Sound weird? ASMR doesn’t work for everyone and it can be tough to imagine the sensation if you don’t experience it firsthand. But those who love it really love it and say it triggers a tingling sensation that instantly relaxes them and can trigger deep sleep fast. (Psssst…Even if ASMR isn’t your thing, you can still benefit from different types of background noise—learn more in this article.)

 

Use essential oils 

Essential oils have gotten a lot of buzz in the last few years. While I’ve seen a lot of sensationalized claims about their healing properties, there’s also legitimate evidence backing up the fact that some scents can relax you and help you fall asleep faster

The most studied and celebrated essential oil for sleep is lavender, which has long been recognized as a natural sleep aid. Rather than directly affecting the quality of sleep itself, research indicates that lavender may help to reduce stress levels, thereby relaxing people enough for them to sleep much better. Plus, unlike most sedative drugs, lavender does not cause any unwanted side effects. 

Lavender essential oils can help reduce stress, anxiety, and insomnia, all of which are common issues among shift workers. Here are some ways to try it: 

  • Take a warm bath with a lavender bath bomb 
  • Moisturize with lavender-scented body lotion
  • Spritz some lavender scent on your pillowcase (read why here)
  • Diffuse lavender oil in your bedroom

 

Here’s the thing: Essential oil preferences are highly individualistic. Despite all the evidence that lavender is great for inducing sleep, it personally makes me feel slightly wired rather than tired. And while others use peppermint or citrus essential oils to perk up, I find they help me relax and fall asleep. So, like all the advice we give on this site, remember that you need to customize your essential oils so that they work for you. 

 

Breathe through it 

If you’re like me, the term “breathwork” conjures up images of burning incense and meditation retreats. But breathwork isn’t actually intimidating or complicated. In fact, it’s one of the easiest and most powerful ways to shift our physiology. 

When we are not paying attention, many of us will take quick, shallow breaths. This breathing pattern gets worse when we feel anxious or stressed and can often cause a vicious cycle where we hyperventilate and then feel worse. By directing our attention toward our breathing and taking a few minutes to breathe slowly and intentionally, we can reverse the process. Breathwork can lower stress, activate the parasympathetic (“rest and digest”) nervous system, and help calm racing thoughts.

Breathwork is easy and can be done anywhere. When I’m lying in bed and can’t sleep, I use 4-7-8 breathing, box breathing, or the psychological sigh to get to sleep faster. (Find more info about these tried-and-true breathing techniques here.) You’ll know the breathing techniques of your choice are having an effect when you let out a big yawn—which is your body’s way of shifting gears. 

 

Consider melatonin 

Melatonin is a hormone produced by your body to regulate the sleep-wake cycle. Melatonin supplements may be useful for certain sleep-wake disorders, which can include circadian phase delay, shift-work sleep disorder, and jet lag. Research into its effectiveness and so far, the results are muddy. (Find a 2005 meta-analysis here and a 2014 study specific to shift workers here.) Furthermore, a 2017 study showed huge variability in the actual melatonin content in supplements versus what is listed on the label. The bottom line? You’ll need to discuss the pros and cons of melatonin supplementation with your health care provider. 

Also, let’s get this right out there: Some people try melatonin and hate it. Some even report it gives them vivid nightmares. For those working nights as emergency responders or in health care who may be regularly exposed to trauma, it’s understandable they might not be keen to sign up for difficult dreams. (Anecdotally, I find this happens when I supplement with too small of a dose, while too big of a dose makes me feel super groggy the next morning.) 

So what’s the best approach? When I spoke to my doctor, I was advised to buy the 0.5 mg supplement so I could carefully regulate the dose. I was told to use 0.5 mg for three sleeps and assess my sleep. Then go up to 1 mg for the next three sleeps, then 1.5 mg for another three sleeps, and so on. The idea is to test out what amount of melatonin produces the best sleep. Once again, it comes down to your individual needs. (The right dose for me is 3 mg, but this varies widely amongst others who take melatonin as needed.)

 

To max out your Zzz’s, mix and match these suggestions until you find the right combination. Falling asleep quickly will help you get enough sleep during your available daytime hours. Then you’ll be ready to work your way through the whole night. 

Last updated: 2024-03-11

Lauren McGill

Lauren McGill

I work at the intersection of healthcare and storytelling. As a medical writer, I help healthcare experts publish content so they stand out as thought leaders.

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