Hospitals – Towards better sleep while in hospital

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Important points about sleep during your stay in hospital

  • Sleep is important for recovery
  • Use a night pack of eye mask and ear plugs
  • Respect hospital quiet/sleep times
  • Be mindful of the daytime sleep needs of yourself and others
  • If you want to nap try to avoid long late afternoon or evening naps
  • Aim to be as comfortable as possible during sleep and ask if you need anything
  • During the day, more sunlight and physical activity (where possible) can help you sleep at night
  • Avoid too many stimulants, especially caffeine and nicotine later in the day
  • Use strategies to avoid too much night-time worry
  • Take time to relax, especially as you wind down for the sleep period

Note: Words below in blue text indicate a fact sheet on the topic on the Sleep Health Foundation website (https://www.sleephealthfoundation.org.au/).

Sleep is important for recovery

Sleep will help your body repair itself and build immunity.  Being rested may also help you manage your pain more effectively.  A hospital stay can be an emotional and upsetting time for you and your loved ones, and having quality sleep helps everyone manage stress better.

Use a ‘night pack’

Using a simple eye mask and ear plugs at night can reduce disturbances during your sleep time.  Sometimes they take a bit of getting used to but it is worth it.  Some hospitals may have these items for patients or ask someone to bring a ‘night pack’ in for you. A pharmacy is likely to sell these items. Headphones can also be useful to avoid disturbing others.

Be mindful of your sleep needs and the needs of others

While in hospital your body will be doing its best to help your recovery.  So you, and/or others on the ward may feel the need to sleep during the day (see Napping below).  If so, be respectful of the needs of others and keep noise to a minimum. Try to have conversations with others softly and, if possible, quietly leave the ward for any longer phone calls.

Most hospitals aim for a nightly quiet settling down time from about 10pm.  Sometimes there will be an afternoon rest period as well. Please ask your visitors to only come during the permitted times and avoid disturbing others nearby as much as possible.

In a shared ward, turn off any TVs, mobile phones (or have these on silent mode), or similar equipment during quiet times. If others around you are settling down for a rest, use headphones to listen to your devices/equipment.  Be mindful of noise from drawers, doors or searching through your overnight bag.  Have all the items you need for getting ready for bed (or during the night) handy beforehand. 

Napping

While in hospital you may feel that a daytime nap will do you good.  However, a long nap in the late afternoon or evening may make you more wakeful during the night.  Getting too much sleep during the day will reduce your ‘sleep pressure’ at bedtime and may lead to lighter, more fragmented night sleep.  Try to plan a hospital nap schedule that works for you.  

Look after your comfort

Getting used to a new sleeping environment can be hard, especially in a hospital.  Make sure you are not too hot or too cold in bed. Let the nurses know if you need a blanket or an extra pillow.  Discuss your pain management needs before the sleep period with the nurse.  If you have had surgery and can’t get comfortable ask the nursing staff to help you find a comfortable position for rest.

Daylight and activity are helpful

We know that getting a good amount of sunlight during the day is helpful for night-time sleep.  This can be hard while in hospital.  Opening your curtains every morning will help your body clock stay on a good routine.  If you are able to spend some time in the outdoor areas of the hospital, this may benefit both your sleep and your mood.  Light activity or exercises, if you can, will also be helpful.  Talk to the nursing staff for advice on what activities would be good for you to do.        

Avoid excessive stimulants

Keep track of the number of drinks you are having with caffeine.  The hospital routine may have you drinking more cola, tea or coffee than usual.  Some people are more sensitive to the stimulating effects of caffeine than others.  There are different views on how many hours before sleep you should have your last caffeine intake. Some say caffeine should be avoided for at least 3 to 7 hours before going to sleep. Others say that no caffeine after lunch time is best if you have sleep problems. Many people find that their sleep improves with less caffeine or only having caffeine earlier in the day.  Also be aware that nicotine is a stimulant and a late-night cigarette may interfere with your sleep.

Try to reduce worry or over-stimulation at night

Being unwell can be a worrying time.  You may be worried about your own health or how your loved ones are coping. If you can’t get your mind off your worries, make a time each day (but not just before bed) to list the things you’re worried about. Then write down what you can do to stop or reduce that worry. For example, you may decide to talk about a problem symptom with a doctor, nurse, or family member. When awake during the sleep period tell yourself that you will think about your worries again the next day. Try not to worry about things you can’t change. 

Sometimes the things we do late in the evening can leave the mind over-stimulated when it comes to sleep time.  Avoid any activities that may ‘wind you up’.  This can include screen-based activities such as games or emotional phone conversations.  Dimmer lighting during the hour before bed can help prepare you for sleep. 

Take time to relax

Aim to increase your relaxation by listening to soothing music quietly through headphones (at a reasonable volume).  There are also free apps for smart phones that use breathing or mindfulness exercises to help you relax (e.g. Smiling Mind).  Relaxation is useful at any time during the day or night but especially in the hour before you try to sleep.

Look after your sleep when you leave hospital

It is important that you look after your sleep needs when you return home after hospital.  There are fact sheets on the good sleep habits that will help you get the best sleep you can.

Sometimes a major illness or surgery may be a time of starting to sleep poorly for an extended period of time, leading to chronic insomnia.  Learn about ways to prevent chronic insomnia from the Sleep Health Foundation.

For further information

The Sleep Health Foundation is working towards making hospitals more sleep-friendly places.  We have developed a range of suggestions for hospital managements to consider and hopefully adopt. These cover issues such as noise, lighting and activity scheduling on the wards.  This fact sheet presents strategies that individual patients may find useful to make their hospital experience more sleep-friendly.

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