The First Responder Family Survival Guide To Night Shifts

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Night Shift. Ugh.

Maybe you feel the same way when you see it pop up on your First Responder Family schedule too?

Do your children have trouble sleeping on night shift asking, “what happens if a bad guy shoots daddy and he dies at work?”

You might dread sleeping alone, parenting solo and trying to keep the house quiet while your First Responder sleeps?

Perhaps it’s your First Responder’s mood swings that make night shift harder to bear?

Whatever it is, as a First Responder Spouse, I get it and as a therapist, I have heard it. You are not alone!

Recently my husband returned to shift work in a deployment position during Covid-19. For several years prior, we had the luxury schedule of weekday, day shifts.

When our family calendar rolled to the night shift, my fears were on fire. I worried about the impact of PTSI symptoms arising in my partner, knowing the impact of night shift on his body. I had fear about being alone at night in the house, which spread to my kids I might add. Fear, all consuming fear.

Fear, is normal. There is nothing wrong with us for having fear. Fear tries to protect us, to keep us safe. It wants to help us.

However, when we react from our fear, it steals our joy, traps us and robs us of being present in the current moment.

It is important to acknowledge our fears and with that in mind, our family responded by having an honest conversation about what we were feeling and what we each needed for night shifts to go well. 

This time around, we approached night shifts differently with awareness and with a plan. We chose to respond to night shift, rather than react to it, as we had in years past. 

As a First Responder Family, this is our new approach to night shifts:

Curiosity: We approached night shifts with curiosity this time. We observed. Like an experiment. Simply noticing the impact of night shift. 

Growth Mindset: Come at us, we said to the challenge of night shift. Rise. Show us what you got. We locked horns, stared it straight in the eye and proclaimed, we have done a boatload of healing, bring on your waves, let’s see how we weather this storm now. Our kids created a night shift countdown calendar to mark off the days. They would say ”4 nights and then six days off” to keep focused on the good, anticipating our next days together.

Neuroscience: Coming down from night shifts our First Responders can be disconnected, staring into space, snappy and become detached. As Spouses, if we have any attachment anxiety it can become activated within us. Our children can blame themselves if their First Responder Parent is upset. Equipped with neuroscience knowledge, we now know his reaction is not about us and we no longer personalize it. 

Exercise: Having a family exercise plan each day.  This not only strengthens our family bond but decreases anxiety for everyone and  drives out the cortisol, adrenaline and norepinephrine (that are holding our First Responder captive), from his body. 

Simplify: Cutting back our expectations, responsibilities, roles and schedule to the bare minimum. Leaving white space on our calendar that is designated for rest.

Affection: Touch becomes even more important. When we are not sleeping together in the same bed, creating opportunities to be affectionate, touch and hug become even more important when we are in each other's presence.

Nutrition: Having a meal plan in place for the days of night shift and doubling recipes for healthy lunches to pack, builds our immunity to fight stress and decreases meal time pressure. 

Connection: There were a couple days we did not see each other as I worked days and he worked nights. One of the questions to ask is HOW can we have connection? One way could be leaving notes of love and appreciation for each other to find around the house, car, jacket, wallet or lunch bag. Our daughter left a piece of paper with a note on the water cooler at bedtime. She would write back and forth with her Dad on that paper during those night shifts. She looked forward to getting up and running to see what he wrote to her on that paper. Creatively connect in each other’s love language. 

Calm/Stillness: Building in small moments of stress relieving practices such as deep breathing and mindfulness throughout our day can help us to relax and have peace in our home.  Our children might need strategies to not worry about their First Responder Parent’s safety. A night time meditation, prayer and guided visualization can help family members fall asleep easier. Our meditation is available to download.

Gratitude: Writing or texting notes of appreciation to your spouse or in a gratitude journal reduces scarcity thinking, of what night shift takes from us, reduces fear and allows joy in. 

Holding Space: Being intentional to take time to be together, for us it might be walking to check the cows, to be present in each other’s presence, to hold space for each other to process work and family life.

Support Network: Reaching out to connect or ask others for help rather than waiting or relying on our partner, when they get home, can be important to reduce stress, knowing we got it covered.

Schedule Self Care: I can’t stress enough how important this is. There is a marked difference in the energy in our home when we are each taking care of ourselves. For me,  I am kinder, more tolerant, patient and grounded after my yoga, devotion and meditation practice.  Our coping and grounding skills are available to download.

Night shifts require prioritizing the primal needs of sleep, nutrition, exercise and rest. Simplifying our schedule. Nurturing ourselves and our relationships. 

Did we have a perfect night shift rotation? Not even close. Was it better than before? Absolutely.

Staying open to the opportunity of HOW we can make night shifts better for our First Responder Family, allows us to rise to the challenge. 

Thriving in night shifts takes planning, mindset shifts and creativity, but it can be done!

 If this was helpful for you, please consider sharing this blog post with other First Responder Families. 




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