hospital sleep

When I was in the hospital after giving birth to my son, I didn’t sleep well.  It wasn’t because of him, though: every few hours, nurses, midwives, and even cleaning staff came into my room to check my vitals, examine one of us, or wash the already immaculate floor.  In France, it’s customary to stay in the maternity ward for three days.  When they told me my son was very slightly underweight and I might want to consider staying for another, I burst into exhausted tears.

My experience isn’t exclusive to French hospitals; it turns out that patient sleep deprivation is an issue in many areas of the developed world.  We all know how vital it is to rest and let your body heal and recover.  But it’s nevertheless a challenge for hospitals

One issue is that some patients — like those in intensive care — need to be monitored a lot.  On the other hand, many medical professionals also observe that for most other cases, not all vitals checks are so essential that they couldn’t be put off until a patient wakes up.  They blame hospital scheduling, which often places importance on staff availability and protocol rather than a patient’s rest.

But unwelcome wake-up calls from hospital staff aren’t the only threat to patient sleep. Parasitic noises also chase away chances for decent shut-eye.  Machines like the ones hooked to IV drips give off annoying beeps and prolonged alarms.  Hallway conversations take place at all hours. Luckily, according to this New York Times article, medical equipment firms are looking into developing machines that make less noise – or even wireless ones that make no noise at all in the patient’s room, and instead send signals to the nursing station.  Of course, the risk would be what could happen if the hospital’s wireless signal stops working, which is probably one of the reasons why I haven’t seen this technology implemented in any hospitals I’ve visited.

Still, some improvements have been made. For example, the same article reveals that certain US hospitals have partnered with sleep-promoting organizations, putting up noise monitors in their hallways imposing quiet hours.  Others have re-organized the way patient checks are scheduled, with some hospitals even allowing patients to make a note of the period they expect to be sleeping and don’t want to be disturbed.  A few hospitals hand out earplugs and eye masks. But these practices aren’t de rigueur everywhere.

Luckily, there are DIY solutions.  Here are some things patients can do to get more sleep at the hospital:

– Bring earplugs and an eye mask. Not all hospitals give these to patients, after all!

– Use white noise.  This can be a recording you can download for free online, or noise made by something like an electric fan.

– Turn off the lights.  Light in general can keep most people from sleeping – and florescent lights that you find in many hospitals are perhaps the worst culprits.

– Leave a note.  During my hospital stay, a nurse told me I could leave a post-it on the door saying my son and I really needed peace and quiet, and hopefully all non-essential staff visits would be put off until I removed the note. I never got to test this, but it could be helpful.

Hopefully you’ll never end up in a hospital for anything serious. But if you do, keep these strategies (and others you can find here and here) in mind: until patient sleep becomes a priority, they may prove essential to getting the rest you need.

by Alysa Salzberg