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The Brave New World of Baby Care

New grandparents may face a steep learning curve

By Mary Jacobs

Terri Taylor jokes that caring for babies isn't like riding a bicycle. When she became a grandmother three years ago, she was surprised to learn that much of what she thought she knew about babies had changed.

A grandmother taking a walk with her grandchild in a stroller. Next Avenue
Some new gadgets will give grandparents sticker shock: $1,000 or more for high-end strollers or $1,700 for "smart" self-rocking bassinets.  |  Credit: Getty

Guidelines for sleep safety and feeding were revised. New baby care gadgets and gear hit the market. And her adult children — like every previous generation of new parents — have their own ideas about parenting.

So much has changed, in fact, that some hospitals offer classes to help get new grandparents up to speed.

"Ultimately, you have to respect that your children are the parents now, and they might have some information you didn't."

If this is your first grandchild, expect a big learning curve, according to Melissa Lopez, an RN and childbirth educator who also teaches grandparenting classes at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas.

"Grandparents are really involved in their grandchildren's lives these days, and new parents appreciate these classes, because they feel a little strange about correcting their own parents," she said.

Taylor's adult children did correct her a few times, and she bristled at first. But knowing now how things have changed, she's adapted.

"Ultimately, you have to respect that your children are the parents now, and they might have some information you didn't," said Taylor, 71, who lives in Dallas.

The New Rules of Sleep

If you're about to become a new grandparent, bolt on your training wheels and start pedaling. Here are some examples of what's changed:

For decades, parents were told to put their babies to sleep on their tummies, until 1994, when the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) launched its Back to Sleep campaign, which led to a significant drop in infant sleep-related deaths.

Today, parents are advised to put their babies to sleep on their backs, always in a crib or bassinet, with no blankets, toys or pillows, which pose choking or suffocation hazards. Many grandparents are shocked by how stark the babies' cribs look.

"There shouldn't be anything in the crib except a mattress with a snug fitted sheet," said Lopez, 53, a mother of four whose first grandchild arrived earlier this year. "It's not how we did things, but it's safer."


If you took your babies on car rides to get them to sleep, that's out now, too. Current guidelines advise against letting babies nap in car seats or baby swings — anything other than a flat, not inclined, surface.   

Like every other generation, today's young parents still obsess over getting baby to sleep, but don't necessarily follow the same approaches their parents did. Marty Allen, 59, of Heath, Texas, nursed her babies until they fell asleep; her son and his wife followed a schedule-oriented sleep training program with their two babies, now 17 months and 4 years of age. When she babysat, Allen followed their lead, but it was a challenge at times.

"Sleep training is actually a whole industry now."

"Sometimes that meant listening to the baby cry a little longer than I was used to," she said.

That's a concern that Dr. Michael Alston, a pediatrician with Kaiser Permanente in Tacoma, Washington, hears from grandparents.

"Sleep training is actually a whole industry now," he said. "They're website-based programs that aim to teach babies to self-console rather than relying on someone to rock them or feed them asleep. That's different than what many grandparents did with their own children, and it can be a little uncomfortable."  

Baby-led Weaning

Remember those jars of pureed peas? They're becoming a thing of the past. Many parents buy baby food in pouches — or skip pureed foods entirely. Breastfeeding remains the recommended way to feed newborns, but at age 6 months, many young parents favor "baby-led weaning" and gradually transitioning directly from breastmilk or formula to table food.

That came as a surprise for Beth Henkel, 61, of Arlington, Texas, who spent many hours cooking and pureeing food for her babies.  

"I'm amazed at some of the foods my grandchildren eat: blueberries, hummus, pickled onions," she said. "But baby-led weaning really seems to work."

Expect resistance if you're tempted to spoil your grandbaby with sweets. Today's parents worry more about sugar. Once considered a mostly benign source of empty calories, now sugar is blamed for obesity, tooth decay, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. For babies and children under 2, the AAP advises against any food or drink with added sugar.

Guidelines for potentially allergenic foods have changed too. When Leah Spitzer's three children were babies, about 30 years ago, she carefully avoided feeding them foods like eggs, dairy, soy, peanut products or fish before age 1. Since then, the guidelines changed.

"Researchers noticed that children in Israel had significantly fewer peanut allergies than children in the U.S. and Great Britain, possibly because Israeli parents give babies Bamba, a popular cheese puff snack made with peanut flour," said Spitzer, a pediatrician in Foxboro, Massachusetts. Studies confirmed that early exposure may help prevent some allergies.  

Now, Spitzer advises parents to introduce very small amounts of potentially allergenic foods, one at a time, mixed with soft food, around 4-6 months. (There are some exceptions; check with your grandchild's doctor.)

New Gear and Gadgets

Gwen and Curtis Moore of Dallas joked that their grandson's first word wouldn't be "mommy" or "daddy" — it'd be "Alexa." Like many new grandparents, the Moores marveled at the array of new gadgets their daughter used: a bottle warmer, bottle drying rack, baby wipe warmer, and Diaper Genie. There's even a wearable breast pump that moms can put under their clothes, pumping as they go about their daily routine.

"In my experience, a lot of grandparents underestimate how dangerous their own home is for grandchildren."

The audio-only baby monitors of the early 1990s evolved, too. Today's have video cameras with high-tech night-vision (that sometimes makes baby's eyes appear to glow — what Taylor calls the "village of the damned" eyes.)

Some new gadgets will give grandparents sticker shock: $1,000 or more for high-end strollers or $1,700 for "smart" self-rocking bassinets. (Some parents opt for rentals or pre-owned models.)

Most grandparents already know that car seats are a must, but many rules have changed. Infants go in the back seat, never in the front. Car seats are rear facing until babies are at least age 2; toddlers and preschoolers go in a forward-facing seat. Kids under 4' 9" tall must sit in a booster. All children under 13 must ride in the back seat.

Parents can also choose from a wide array of new childproofing gadgets that protect every knob, nook and cranny in the home. Grandparents might want to buy some, too, to babyproof their homes.

"In my experience, a lot of grandparents underestimate how dangerous their own home is for grandchildren," said Alston. He has treated toddlers who overdosed on grandparents' pain meds, marijuana edibles or the liquid in flavored nicotine vaping cartridges.

Today's parents are also warier about "screen time"— on tablets, computers, cellphones, video games and TV. Because of recent research on its potential effects on brain development, the AAP advises no screen time for children until 18 to 24 months.

However, the AAP makes an exception for video chatting. Take advantage of that new technology and go ahead and FaceTime with the grandkids.

Mary Jacobs
Mary Jacobs is a freelance writer who covers issues related to aging, older adults and spirituality. She lives with her husband in Plano, Texas, and enjoys traveling, reading and cooking. Read More
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