On Oprah.com: 6 ways to be a better parent online

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This post originally appeared on Oprah.com.

A few months ago, we had one of those stomach flus familiar to parents of young children everywhere. My son threw up all over his bed, and I wasn’t feeling so hot myself.

A wiser woman would do her best to forget this nightmare, but in our house, the ups and downs get immortalized on Twitter and Facebook. So when my husband headed off to a gathering of twitterers the next day, I couldn’t resist posting an update. And of course my update had to introduce a new hashtag, one of those keywords (preceded by a # sign) that people use to organize conversations on Twitter:

@robcottingham off to #vancouvertweetup while I go home to #pukefest

Rob’s response:

@awsamuel Will try to moderate drinking sufficiently to prevent hashtag convergence. #vancouvertweetup #pukefest

But Rob wasn’t the only person to respond. Our friend Jordan saw our tweets and chimed in:

@awsamuel @robcottingham It sounds as though we’re experiencing the same kind of week. Praise Pedialyte!

Pukefest may have started as a one-liner, but it turned into a lifeline. Three nights after our Twitter exchange, #pukefest claimed our daughter. The poor kid was epically sick: She threw up for hours and hours, all night long. Thanks to Jordan’s tip, we were ready with the Pedialyte, and when the puking finally stopped, we were able to get Sweetie hydrated and perked up very quickly.

If it takes a village to raise a child, that village no longer needs to be defined by the place you happen to live. Given the mobility of today’s young parents, it’s probably better if you’re not reliant on the people in your own town or city: You need a village of co-parents who can travel with you, who will be wide awake in their time zone when you’re groggily dealing with a middle-of-the-night crisis in yours.

6 ways the web can get you the village of help you need

Get Support
When we were expecting our daughter, we knew we were likely to have breastfeeding challenges. I’d had a breast reduction many years before, back in the day when the surgery almost inevitably compromised a mom’s future ability to nurse. Thanks to the Web, I discovered Breast Feeding After Reduction (BFAR), a Yahoo group for moms who’d been in the same position. Reading through the group’s archives introduced us to a book with practical tips and guidance, let us read up on the pros and cons of different supplementation approaches and helped us know the signs if our baby wasn’t getting enough milk. But with all that preparation, I was still devastated when a lactation consultant told me that no, my daughter wasn’t getting enough milk, and I had to start giving her extra milk or formula. I cried for an hour and then posted my heartbreak to the BFAR group. Within minutes, I had consoling messages from other moms who’d been there, sympathizing with my pain and cheering me on for my efforts to deal with the situation. They got me past the tears and ready to embrace feeding my baby in whatever way she needed.

Get Information
Shortly after our son was born, we had a chat with some friends who told us how they avoided using any plastic food storage, strictly for health reasons. Sounded crazy to me, but I Googled to see what scientific evidence was available for or against plastic. And I came across an extensive campaign, dating back to 1999—years before we became parents—drawing attention to the lack of scientific evidence about the safety of BPA, the plastic used in many baby bottles, including the Avent bottles we used. There was enough cause for worry that we decided to switch bottles, and I wrote an extensive blog post on about BPA and the alternative bottles we’d discovered. A year later, the BPA issue got in the headlines once again, and there was suddenly a mass exodus of parents from Avent bottles and the like. But I didn’t panic: My blog post had gotten me up-to-speed on the issue in time to get my son off the questionable bottles.

Get Inspiration
As astonishing as this may sound, we had trouble getting each of our kids to sleep through the night. We read lots of sleep books and even hired a sleep consultant, but each stage of development brought a fresh batch of sleep problems. And each time, we’d find fresh inspiration on the Web. These days, the chief tool in our bedtime arsenal comes from a great idea we found online: Give your kid a “pass” at bedtime, good for one glass of water, trip to the bathroom or whatever the latest request might be. With this tip we were able to go from 90 minutes of bedtime drama to just 10 or 15—giving us back our evenings!

Get Stuff
Another tip we read on lots of parenting sites was to provide an “attachment object,” typically a blanket or toy that your baby or child will cling to for comfort and sleep. And many parents emphasized the importance of having a backup in case the favored object goes missing. When our daughter got attached to a green elephant, we purchased a second identical elephant the next week. Little did we know that we’d also need one to keep at daycare and one to pack in her daycare earthquake kit. By that time, the elephant was long gone from our local baby store—but with some effort, we located a supply online. No matter how obscure your parenting quest, you’re likely to find your object of desire somewhere online.

Get Help
The Web is a great place to find sitters and other help, if you know where to look. I’ve generally had great success hiring off Craigslist for both home and business, partly because we make a point of conveying our character:

Do you love to bring order to chaos? We can supply the chaos. We have small kids (both in daycare) and a thriving business, so we really need another person who can help us at home. We may leave our kitchen looking like a disaster area, but we really appreciate the person who restores it to order, and the people who have worked with us at home or in our office have loved working for us.

I get lots of responses, and I’m conscientious about checking references. But no system is foolproof: One lovely young woman who came highly recommended looked after our kids several times before we came home early and found our vodka bottle on the kitchen counter…and then hidden away as soon as we turned our back. After that experience, we resorted to a subscription-based website that matches sitters with parents, and found a great sitter among the many responses. And unlike referrals from friends, you’re not competing for sitter time with people you know, so you’re less likely to come up empty on the night of the big party.

Get Expertise
We’re expertise junkies. I might as well confess that in the past five years, we’ve had a business coach, a money coach, a sales coach, a doula, a lactation consultant, a sleep coach, a professional organizer and a parenting coach. We’ve worked with some people by phone and with others in person, but it was our parenting coach—Barb Desmarais—who suggested video conferencing via Skype™. In just a few conversations, we were transformed from daunted parents of a newly argumentative toddler into a confident, relaxed Dad and a gently authoritative Mom. For five whole minutes.

Okay, so the Internet can’t turn us into superparents. But what can? As parenting coach Barb once said to us, “We are all perfect parents—until we have kids.” What the Internet can do is remind you that you are not the only parent to come up short. And in that recognition comes the self-acceptance and peer camaraderie to get the advice, support and inspiration to be the best imperfect parent you can be.

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