I like order, predictability, and certainty. But under the insistent guidance of my two children, I have learned that parenting overthrows all those states and replaces them with the great wide land of the unexpected.
I didn't expect that my firstborn would spend a week in the NICU for some unexplained red blotches on his forehead and that I'd have to scrub my hands with iodine before I nursed him in a hard plastic chair in an isolated hospital room. I didn't expect that when his sister was born, my 2-year old would develop a crippling fear of going to sleep that kept us up all night watching C-span in the hopes that long, boring speeches would lull him to sleep. And I never expected that I would become a children's sleep coach when sleep was, for so many years, my biggest parenting challenge.
Learning to shift my expectations and make room for the surprises of parenting has made it much easier, so I often try to share my hard-won acceptance of the unexpected with my clients. Here are a few tips to help you plan for unexpected changes that will come to your child's sleep:
Be prepared for sickness. Your daughter seemed to be recovering from her cold only to awake in a screaming fit of pain at 2 am with an ear infection, also known as the sleep destroyer. Know the appropriate dosage of ibuprofen or acetaminophen, and keep the medication stocked in your medicine cabinet right next to a good thermometer that works. Yes, you will lose sleep to sickness. That's parenthood. But being ready for it will minimize the impact on you.
Have a change of sheets ready for when the inevitable stomach virus hits your household. Like the time I finally decided to go out on New Year's Eve (after years of watching the sun set on the new year) only to discover that my daughter had thrown up twice in her own crib and was sleeping in it. A friend of mine keeps two layers on her son's crib: mattress pad, sheet, and then another mattress pad and sheet underneath it. This makes for easy middle of the night sheet changing.
Expect your kid to climb out of the crib or fall off the bed long before you are prepared for it. So drop the crib mattress all the way down as soon as she is trying to sit up or introduce the "big kid bed" with a mattress on the floor. Tell your child early on, "We do not climb in cribs." React strongly if you see him attempting it (as strongly as you would if he reached for a hot pan on the stove).
Be flexible with the nap schedule. When your perfect two nap a day sleeper stages a protest when you put him down in the afternoon, take time to reevaluate the schedule. Should the naps shift later, or should you enact a longer wind down period before sleep time? Or maybe he is ready for one nap a day? Don't give up on the nap. Change the schedule. When my youngest turned 2, she fought her nap hard for three weeks straight. But I kept putting her into the crib and giving her an hour to rest, and I eventually won. She is upstairs napping while I write this.
Know that bad nights happen. It doesn't mean that you failed or are failing. It's just part and parcel of parenthood. But if a new behavior develops and lasts longer than three days, it’s time to pay attention. Revisit your favorite sleep book, identify your goals, and come up with a plan you can stick to.