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What I Did That Made Me a Wiser and Safer Grandparent

After all, the standards of baby care have changed since we raised children.

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illustration of woman in front of chalkboard with drawing of baby, teaching grandparents
Tomi Um
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The first time I held my newborn granddaughter, I was mesmerized, immediately awash in love. The second minute, my mind drifted in a less wholesome direction — could I spirit her away under my coat? In my backpack? In my carry-on luggage when I flew across the country back home? I’m kidding. Sort of.

The connection was profound. I never wanted to let her go. Soon enough though, tiny Annie got hungry and began rooting around my chest, becoming increasingly frantic by the minute. “Oh, honey, that restaurant has been closed for decades,” I told her, feeling forlorn.

My daughter scooped up the baby and began to nurse her. Annie may have felt like my baby. I may have wanted her to be my baby. But nature had bluntly reminded me that those days were over. I was a grandma now and — baby lust aside — I needed some attitude adjustment.

Cue grandparenting class. Literally. I am a proud graduate of “Grandparenting in 2021,” having completed the two-hour virtual class given through the Perinatal Education Program at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford in California. Classes for new grandparents are popping up around the country.

Before you say, “I raised my own kids and know how to take care of a baby,” consider a few realities. First, standards of baby care have changed since you raised children. And second, you need to learn how to navigate the relationship with the new parents.

Parenting styles come and go, but the most important changes in childcare concern safety. When I had babies in the ’80s, we put them in cribs on their stomach, advised that this would prevent infants from choking on their own spit up. Later research reversed that thinking. Babies who sleep on their tummies are at a higher risk for sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Speaking of the crib, no more bumpers, blankets or toys allowed in there (also smothering risks), just a bottom sheet. New parents have odd-looking “sleep sacks” that keep the baby warm. Some grandparent courses also cover infant CPR.

Then, there are today’s car seats. “The most important part of grandparent class is learning to install the car seat,” says registered nurse Christina Lewis, manager of Clinical Education for Women’s Services with Catholic Health of Buffalo, New York. She oversees grandparent classes at three area hospitals. “It should be easy and straightforward, but it’s been so many years of willy-nilly regulations and so many vehicle styles, it’s ridiculously complicated.”

One new grandfather grumbled that a NASA engineer would struggle with the instructions. Not all classes cover car seats, but many hospitals and local firehouses offer clinics on how to install today’s models.

Here’s where the all-important part two of grandparent class comes in. Your opinion is not welcome. Your information is likely dated. It’s not your child. Repeat, it’s not your child. Unless you believe your grandchild is in real danger, keep your mouth shut.

“You’re not captain of the team anymore,” says Donne Davis, the founder of GaGa Sisterhood, a social and educational network for grandparents. “You’re a team member and your goal is to support the parents in whatever they want.”

She speaks from long experience. Some 18 years ago, Davis was baffled to see her daughter practically wearing the baby as an appendage, sleeping with her and then complaining about how tired she was. Attachment parenting was in vogue. The experience prompted Davis to connect with other grandparents, if only for a reality check.

“I was mystified by how my two daughters did everything differently than I did, and kept wondering, ‘Is this what it’s like for other grandparents?’” Davis ultimately created an in-person and online forum for discussions and also hosts monthly speakers.

In gleeful anticipation of my own grandchild, I signed up for the online course given at Stanford. My default know-it-all attitude was quickly humbled. Co-teachers Marilyn Swarts and Nancy Sanchez reminded us that new parents need support to build their confidence, not second guessing on whether the baby is getting enough milk through nursing.

Whether it’s East Coast or West Coast, hospital-based grandparent classes seem to share the same origin. New parents in baby groups begged instructors to educate grandparents. “We were hearing from the young mothers,” says Sanchez. “Grandparents were challenging things. We realized that things had changed from when these grandparents were parents, and to get everybody on the same page would definitely help that transition.”

Because the pandemic forced classes online, grandparents are signing up from all over the world. Cultural differences are another topic addressed. With greater numbers of multicultural and multiracial couples having babies, each set of grandparents may have different expectations.

In the class I attended, grandparents logged in from India, Japan, as well as New York, Michigan, California and Massachusetts. We shared most of the same concerns. Several of us asked for a repeat of the swaddling demonstration.

A few days after my “graduation,” my husband and I were on the way across the country to meet our new granddaughter. Annie was born within minutes of our plane touching down.

The three weeks helping my daughter and son-in-law with the baby went remarkably smoothly, in no small part due to what I learned in class. Despite my instincts to steal that baby, I focused on taking care of the parents. I did a lot of cooking. My husband did many loads of laundry. It seemed like we were at the grocery store every day. The bleary-eyed new parents were incredibly grateful.

I only slipped up twice. Once, when my son-in-law took the baby outside on a chilly day without wrapping her up. I think I get a pass for chasing after him with a blanket. The second violation happened when my daughter told me she was going to wake the baby to feed her. I almost said, “Are you nuts? Who wakes up a sleeping baby?!” I managed to rephrase it: “Back in my day we would never wake a sleeping baby. The idea was to space out the feedings, letting the baby go longer and longer so that they’d sleep through the night.”

“Nope,” my daughter retorted. “The lactation consultant said to feed her every three hours.”

When I got home, I discovered my daughter was right. New research says that newborns should eat that frequently. It’s important for their cognitive development. And lactation consultants are now routinely part of hospital and pediatric practices.

Best of all was snuggling my granddaughter almost to my heart’s content. And thanks to a little preparation that prompted me to think about my new role, I’m welcome to come back for more. Because some things do not change over time. Like generations of grandmas before me, I am completely besotted with this wonderful new little human.

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