How to Prepare for 12 Hour Shift Schedules As a Nurse

12 hour shift schedules
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Having a typical “nurse schedule” (meaning that you only work three days a week for 12-hours), is one of the best perks of being a nurse!  You get four days off from the hospital each week to do whatever it is that you want!  You can even “stack” your weeks (work the first three shifts of week one and the last three shifts of week two) to take eight days off work without needing to take any PTO.  When I do this, I like to go on what I refer to as “the 8-day vacay”.  However, even though you’re only working three days per week, you’re still working a full workweek in those three days.  Adequately preparing for your 12-hour shift schedules is imperative to get through the workweek.

Now you might be reading this and thinking, 12 + 12 + 12 = 36 which is NOT a full work week.  Well, I would say to you, shifts usually end up lasting about 13-hours meaning that in 3 days, nurses do end up putting in nearly 39-hours give or take.

Still, you might be skeptical thinking, “Well you’re only working 3 days a week!  How hard can it be?”  The truth is, nurses are oftentimes on their feet for a majority of their 12-hour shifts.  We barely have time to use the restroom, eat food, and even drink water.  We’re constantly using our brains, making sure that every single thing we do is safe, follows policy, and is best for the patient.  Not to mention that we’re emotionally spent caring for sick and dying patients plus being a support system for their families.  So yes, even though we only work three days a week, it is still emotionally and physically draining.


Here’s How to Best Prepare for 12 Hour Shift Schedules and Thrive!

nurse in scrubs on railroad track

Working a 12-hour schedule is daunting… if you don’t know how to adequately prepare.  Here are some of my favorite tips that have helped me get through each workweek, thrive, and prevent nurse burnout.



Something that you probably have been hearing for the majority of your life now, but what you put in your body matters.  If you eat pizza from the cafeteria, french fries, and chicken fingers on the regular you’re going to feel sluggish and tired throughout your 12-hour work shift.  Instead, if you give your body the nutrients that it needs you’ll feel energized enough to get through the day/night.

Not only does what you eat matter but how much you eat matters.  A critical mistake when packing your lunchbox (if you take your own lunch) is not bringing enough food.  I find that I need to pack something for breakfast, lunch, and an afternoon snack.  (If you’re on the night shift that would mean packing a snack, dinner, and either breakfast or another snack for the early morning).  You don’t want to allow yourself to get so hungry that you end up running to the vending machine or candy jar to satisfy your cravings.

If you don’t take your own food, try to make nutritious choices in the cafeteria.  Opt for a salad instead of fries.  Greek yogurt instead of a breakfast burrito, etc.

If you’re planning to pack your lunch, these are my favorite lunch boxes for nurses!

  • LOVINA “Bento Box Adult Lunch Box” – I love this option that comes with silverware, an ice pack, and is easy to pack!  However, it’s a bit small if you’re someone that takes breakfast, lunch, and snacks to work it might not be the best.
  • FineDine “8-Piece Insulated Lunch Box Set” – I love the size of this one and that it comes with Tupperware!
  • Weitars “Lunch Bag” – This one is great for style (it doesn’t look as much like a lunch box), plus there are two separate storage areas if you want to keep some food hot and some food cold.



Let me say this louder for the people in the back – your sleep matters!  Getting enough sleep before your shift will give you a clear, sharp mind when going in to care for your patients.  If you can’t sleep try taking melatonin or consult with your doctor.

While everyone is different, I find that I function best off of 7-8 hours of sleep.  Knowing this, I usually get in bed around 9:30 pm (if I plan to wake up at 5:30 am), and either read or watch one TV show.  Once my show is over or I’ve read until about 10, I turn out the lights.  Find a routine that works best for you and stick to it!

If you’re stuck working the night shift, then getting adequate sleep during the day may be difficult for you.  I’ve found that a good quality sleep mask, ambient noise, and ear buds work best for me.


Are you going to be working the night shift and worried about your sleep patterns?  Make sure to read…



Some hospitals don’t allow nurses to have water bottles nearby, instead, there is a designated drink station in the middle of the unit.  And even if you’re allowed to have a water bottle nearby, remembering to drink that water can be difficult.  But here’s the thing, I need you to make it a priority to stay hydrated during your nursing shifts.  By staying hydrated you’re keeping your appetite in check, hopefully avoiding those dehydration headaches, and flushing your system of any toxins.

Imagine if you don’t drink water (or enough water) during your entire shift.  How will you feel once you get home?  Probably not great.  I recommend buying a big water bottle and setting a goal on how many times you’ll refill it throughout your shift.  A good rule of thumb is to take your weight and divide it by two.  120/2 = 60; meaning you should be drinking 60 ounces of water per day.

I love to take my Corkcicle to work, it’s been my go-to water bottle for years!



This goes for your work life and your social life.  If work wants you to pick up an extra shift and you know that you are already emotionally or physically spent, it is not only okay to say no, but imperative to say no.  The best thing for you, and subsequently your patients, is for you to listen to your body and mind.  If you need a day off of work no amount of money or peer pressure should bring you into the hospital.  I believe that I am not burned out from work because I’ve made a rule for myself that I will not pick up an extra shift.  And I’ve stuck to that rule!  I take full advantage of only working three days a week and refuse to apologize for it.

The same goes for your personal life.  If you’ve had a particularly hard work week and just need to stay at home and veg to feel better, then stay at home and veg.  You don’t need to apologize for doing what is best for you, for doing what will get you in the best headspace to return to work again the next week.



There’s nothing worse than being at work for 12-hours than being uncomfortable at work for 12-hours.  This means buying scrubs that you feel good – no – great! in.  If you’re a new nurse, before buying a bunch of scrubs, figure out what color scrubs your hospital requires and if they provide the scrubs.

Another way to stay comfortable is to dress appropriately!  By this, I mean dressing for the hospital “weather”.  Hospitals are typically pretty cold so while you can bring a jacket, I also recommend wearing long-sleeves (that you’re able to push above your elbows for patient care) under your scrubs.

Lastly, being on your feet for 12-hours can cause your ankles to swell, and down the road may even cause varicose veins.  I like to wear compression socks to help with lower leg swelling and support the blood return from my legs to my heart.


For more on what to bring to the hospital, don’t miss…



The most important thing you can do to prepare for a 12-hour nursing shift is to take care of yourself on your days off!  If this means getting a glass of wine with friends – get a glass of wine with friends.  If this means sleeping in extra long – sleep in extra long.  If this means maximizing your time off to travel and see the world – heck, travel and see the world!  Do what will fill your cup and allow you to go back to work feeling energized and ready to be there.


You see, 12-hour shifts aren’t for the faint of heart, and 12-hour shifts for nurses can be tiring and leave you feeling depleted.  By following my tips above and giving yourself some extra TLC, you’ll be thriving in the work environment in no time.

Did I miss any important tips?  Let me know in the comments below!


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Kylee is a NICU nurse passionate about making travel affordable and accessible to nurses. Inspiring nurses to travel both near and far, Kylee began Passports and Preemies in 2017 while volunteering in Skopje, North Macedonia as a way to reach nurses and advocate for the prevention of nurse burnout by traveling. Kylee has been a NICU nurse for 9 years and a travel nurse for 7 years. Since starting her career in travel nursing, she’s worked in six different states, 10 different hospitals, volunteered as a nurse in North Macedonia, worked as a nurse in Saudi Arabia, and has traveled to 45+ countries. Her favorite travel nurse assignment was in Seattle and her favorite destination is Georgia (the country). Kylee is the original creator of the “8 Day Vacay” – a vacation geared towards nurses who aim to take advantage of the potentially 8 days off between work weeks with no need to use PTO.

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