Q&A: routine for a baby of a shift worker

Lisa writes:

"A question that's been weighing on my mind as I returned to worklast week: how can I get my little one feeling secure in the world now that I am returning to work, on a very erratic schedule?  During my 15 week maternity leave, my son and I got into a nice little groove with a loose routine going. Nothing fancy, just a predictable wakeup and bedtime (within an hour or so timeframe), a nap every hour or two (can't wait to consolidate those!), an outing midday, that kind of thing.  Well, now I'm back to work.  I work shifts in an ER, and my schedule is all over the place.  I work a combination of daytime, evening, and overnight shfits with no predictable pattern at all.  One week I might work 5 shifts, and the next week be off entirely.  I can request shifts ahead of time, but have very little control over whether I get my request (I'm pretty low in the hierarchy).  We'll be bringing him to a family day care starting next week, and I have flexibility there - we have a full time slot though I plan on having him with me during my days off.  I once thought that my crazy schedule would be very kid-positive, in that I can spend whole days with him, never miss a school play etc., but in his babyhood I worry that the inconsistency is stressing him out.  Here's why:

I started back to work with a half shift that began after his bedtime, and ended just before he would typically wake up for a nighttime nursing session.  Figured that he'd barely even know I was gone.  I was so proud of my little plan, and whammo, he got me. Wouldn't fall asleep that night, up every hour with my husband during my absence, and hasn't been able to sleep since.  We co-sleep with his crib as a side car on our bed, and now his sleep is all screwy, getting up every 2-3 hours (where previously he slept for 4-6 in a row), needing to sleep ON me from about 4 AM onward, that kind of thing.

I think this is a combination of my returning to work plus the 4 month sleep regression or 3 month growth spurt (he was a month early so I never know exactly where we'll fall in those milestones) plus he seems to be teething.  I know I can do nothing about the sleep regression or growth spurts or teething except get through it and keep him as comfortable and secure feeling as possible.  But is there something I can do to give him some loose structure despite my completely erratic schedule?  Any suggestions?"

First, I want to say thank you for working in the ER. I know it's not glamourous and won't make you rich, but we really need good people there. So thnks.

It seems to me that consistency and routine about about a few things: what you do, how you do it, and when you do it. Since you have no control over the "when" anymore, it seems like the other two elements will become even more important for you and your son until he's old enough to be able to understand when you tell him what your schedule is for that day or week.

That's earlier than you think it is. In fact, my first suggestion is that every morning when he wakes up you--or whoever's with him--tell him what's going to happen during the day and when you'll be with him. You'll be shocked at how much this helps him calm down and feel more secure. Think about not having any idea what's going on and being carried around by big people all day and just being bewildered by everything. Then think about what it would be like to start to understand what the big people were saying, and realize that they were telling you what was going to happen for the whole rest of the day. It would be kind of like discovering the Rosetta stone.

Once you've started doing that, make sure that you establish and stick to routines as much as possible. The same bedtime routine. The same naptime routines. The same mealtime routines. Whether you're doing it, your partner is doing it, or someone else is doing, try to stick to the same routine as much possible. This will provide stability and predictability, and help your little guy relax.

The other element is how you do things. If you're sweet and constant and confident with him, no matter what time of day it is, he'll feel like you're always the same mommy. He'll feel like you love him and want to be with him. He'll feel like you're in control and he can relax. It's a huge relief to a child to know that his parents are taking care of things and he doesn't have to worry.

This is clearly going to get easier the older he gets and the more attached the two of you become. And once object permanence kicks in at around 9 months it should get significantly easier.

Anyone have any wisdom for Lisa?