Guide For New Grandparents

Part 1: Ready or Not…

So you’re going to be a grandparent! The first image that comes to mind is that angelic little bundle wrapped in pink or blue gazing up at you. A new life. A new little someone to spoil with time and things you couldn’t give your own children.

Your second thought is, “My gosh, am I really that old?” You aren’t, of course. Just the same, you’re going to be a grandparent, so it’s time to prepare. Whether you’ll be a grandparent, a step-grandparent or adopted grandparent makes little difference—children understand love, not labels. Whatever your title, you’re about to become an important part of a young person’s life.

Preparing to be a grandparent is best done in advance. While learning of a pregnancy should be exciting for prospective parents and grandparents alike, the news isn’t always welcomed: for instance, when it involves teenage or unmarried daughters or young couples with limited income. Whatever the circumstances, remember that your response to the news can color your entire relationship with the parents and grandchild, even before that child is born.

Bringing a new life into the world should be a joyous occasion for a couple, so be happy for them. And be happy they decided to share the news with you. Be positive. Remember, aside from being excited, the parents-to-be probably are nervous and scared. Your reassurance will bolster their confidence throughout the pregnancy and birth.

The news they’re sharing is a fact, so now is not the time to question if they’ve thought this through. Certain questions are better left unasked: “Can you afford a child? Do you have room? What about your job?” All imply a lack of confidence in the prospective parents. Instead, ask questions they’d rather answer, such as “How are you feeling?” and “When is the baby due?”

In the case of an unexpected pregnancy—especially between unmarried parents who don’t live together—you might initially feel angry and want to blame them for being irresponsible. If your daughter is the mother-to-be, you might feel foreboding about how the pregnancy and birth might adversely affect her life. You might be embarrassed to tell your friends. And, selfishly or not, you might worry about what role you’ll be asked to play. Resist reacting in a way you might later regret.

Spread the Word?

After you’ve heard the news, you immediately pick up the phone. Who will you tell first?! But wait a minute: This is the prospective parents’ news, not yours. Be considerate. Give them a chance to tell family and friends.

There may be many reasons why they don’t want the news spread just yet. Did you ask? A teenage girl, for example, probably wouldn’t want her friends to find out. Many couples, especially those with medical problems or a later-life pregnancy, might want to wait out the first trimester—when most miscarriages occur—before spreading the news. Better to wait to tell someone you’re pregnant than to have to explain a miscarriage.

There also might be job-related reasons why the mom-to-be wants to keep the pregnancy secret: A new assignment, promotion or relocation might be adversely affected if her news is leaked prematurely. Perhaps the parents-to-be want to choose the time and place to talk with an older child, or one from another marriage, about the future sibling. Always be considerate of the parents’ wishes.

Getting Ready

Keeping the news secret, however, doesn’t preclude you making plans. How sweet the vision of your new grandchild in that pretty, white crib your own child slept in, or in the antique highchair you refinished so long ago. They just need a little dusting or repainting, right? Beware! Safety standards have changed considerably in the past 20 or so years.

That crib may be coated with lead-based paint or have widely spaced bars that can trap little heads. Highchairs also might have lead-based paint or might topple easily. A sturdy, newly crafted chair might be the best choice. Infant car-seat designs have been altered extensively in the past several years to keep up with the latest safety standards; for instance, federal law requires infants be transported in rear-facing car seats and secured in the back seat of any vehicle with a passenger-side air bag.

So, before you rush out to the nearest baby superstore, consider this: Perhaps the best gift you can give the parents-to-be is a check or cash to buy new, approved baby items. If you prefer to pick a present, ask the parents what they need, then visit a baby department store to ensure that the products you purchase meet the most recent safety standards.

Not sure what to get? Two inexpensive gift suggestions: an audio monitor for the baby’s room and a rear-view mirror to check on the rear-facing baby in the back seat. And since diapers are one of the biggest expenses for new parents, a package or two would be most welcome any time.

Dodgy Discussions

During the pregnancy, you might be privy to more medical information from the mother-to-be than you want. Certainly, show concern. Remember, this might be a new experience for both prospective parents, and they are bound to be worried or scared. Just don’t add your own worries to theirs. Let them talk with you about their fears, and allay them as best you can.

Unless you are a doctor, refrain from offering medical advice; prenatal medicine has come a long way since you became a parent. Picking up a current guide to pregnancy and birth for the parents-to-be—maybe even a copy for yourself—might help everyone understand what to expect during each trimester.

During the second trimester, prospective parents sometimes can learn their baby’s gender while viewing an ultrasound, or sonogram, a diagnostic test usually given between the 16th and 20th week of pregnancy. If they do, they might want to share that information with you.

Naturally, many of us have a gender preference for our grandbabies. While some people find ruffled pink dresses and baby dolls hard to resist, others are drawn to striped overalls and trains. Avoiding expectations will help you avoid feeling let down. Besides, the sex of the baby is already determined. If you don’t state a preference, you won’t make the parents feel you’re disappointed.

When it comes to names, the safest approach is not to suggest them unless you’re asked. It’s the parents’ responsibility to decide. Let them choose without any pressure. After all, family names might seem too old-fashioned or favor one relative over another.

On the other hand, current “fad” names might be too prolific by the time the baby is born. It’s impossible to please everyone. So, when the new parents choose a name, accept it not only without criticism, but rather with compliment. Chances are that many hours of thought and compromise have been invested in their decision.

Welcome to the World!

Finally, the big day has arrived! Hopefully, you’ve communicated with both parents long before mom went into labor about how you might help during and after the birth and when you might visit the baby. Honor the mom-to-be’s wishes, whether she wants to have her baby delivered by a doctor or midwife, in the hospital or at home. It’s her body.

Clear the time in advance so you can be present if needed; certain circumstances might call for your help. For example, a young, unmarried mother might need a hand to hold. Even if the new mother doesn’t need your help, if you live close enough to the hospital, you might still go there to be with the new father and see the baby.

If you live too far away, new grandmother Diana Salomon, of Venice, Florida, suggests tapping into technology. “As soon as the baby was born,” she says, “our son took digital pictures and sent them to us by e-mail. We could see birth pictures on the same day—even though we live 700 miles away.”

Nowadays, fathers often attend the birth and then stay in the hospital room to bond with mother and baby. So, if you plan to visit the new baby, you might offer to help at the couple’s house by taking care of a family pet, retrieving phone messages and gathering mail. If the mother is having a Caesarean, she may need help as soon as she comes home—she’ll be prohibited from lifting anything other than the baby for several weeks.

Coordinate your visit with the other grandparents, if possible, but don’t necessarily defer to them if the mother is your stepdaughter or daughter-in-law. After all, you may live closer than the other grandparents, be better able to take time off from work or activities, or be in better health.

A Homecoming

When the baby—or babies (we’ll address multiple births in a moment)—comes home, be mindful of the needs of both the new parents and the baby. Ask how both parents are feeling—don’t forget dad—and what they need. Sleep deprivation is a major challenge for new parents.

You can help: Offer to rock the baby and let mommy sleep; change a diaper; prepare a bottle if the baby is not breast-feeding. Offer to cook or pick up meals, or contact a local restaurant or chef about having prepared meals delivered. Offer to clean the house and do laundry, send in your own cleaning person or call a reputable cleaning service if it’s agreeable to the parents. Visit or arrange a visit from someone close to take an older sibling for an outing or a family pet for a walk. Offer to shop for needed items; diapers always seem to run out in the middle of the night.

The birth of twins, triplets or more might mean hospital vigils if the little ones are in incubators and might require childcare for any siblings remaining at home. When the babies come home, their care might prove overwhelming for the parents. In this case, grandparents can be godsends in offering the extra hands necessary to tend to the new infants.

However good your intentions, be sure you have the new mother’s blessing in whatever you do. Don’t try to take over. Avoid “teaching” the new parents your “tried and true” methods unless asked. Somehow, all new parents eventually learn these “tricks” by themselves.

Probably, much has changed since you had your last child. So listen to the new parents to find out any new theories on infant care. As new grandmother Valerie Baumbach, of Acworth, Georgia, relates, “Kids have to sleep on their backs now. It’s even printed on the diapers to make sure you remember!”

Part 2: …Here They Come

Now, focus on that new little person in your life. You’ve probably seen the bumper sticker that says, “If I’d known grandchildren were so much fun, I would have had them first.” Ask any grandparent. They’ll echo that sentiment. Ready or not, that little someone is about to change your life.

Start immediately to make the child part of the family. Call him (or her) by his given name or the parents’ chosen nickname. Terms of endearment, however well intended, might confuse him. Soon he will respond to hearing his own name and develop his own personality. Refer to the baby as “he” or “she,” not “it.” Avoid “baby talk,” but rather speak in simple sentences using adult words so he will learn to talk properly.

All babies are individuals, not carbon copies of their parents—or grandparents. Remarking on “Grandma’s eyes” or “Uncle Jim’s chin” might appear to exclude the other side of the family. It’s a natural inclination, but one that can alienate other family members.

One question that seems to pop up in every family is “What will the baby call you?” Sure, your grandchild can’t even speak yet. But how many ways can you say “grandma” or “grandpa”? Especially today, when great-grandparents often are still alive, and there might be step-grandparents as well, there might not be enough names to go around.

If you have other grandchildren, you might want to use the same name. Then again, that name may already refer to one of the other grandparents. You can state a preference, but don’t be surprised if the parents call you something else around the child, or if the child coins his own name for you. The important thing is that, whatever he calls you, he grows to love you.

Fostering Bonds

What grandparent can resist providing a new grandchild with the best that money can buy? Before you empty your wallet, though, consider the space the new baby will occupy. A small apartment might not have room for a French Provincial bedroom set with a matching changing table or a three-foot-tall teddy bear. Suppose you have a trunk filled with mommy’s or daddy’s favorite stuffed animals? Again, beware! Older stuffed toys might not meet today’s standards.

For instance, toys that are older than 20 years might be stuffed with kapok—silky fibers from tropical trees that can be a very strong allergen—or with foam rubber, which may harbor molds. Today’s toys must bear a label listing their contents. Other toys might have small parts that can be pulled off and swallowed. These toys are not recommended for children younger than 3 years. Look at the labels before buying hand-me-downs or offering them to your grandchild.

Don’t be disappointed if your grandbaby prefers a simple stuffed toy that has already spent many hours in the washer to the beautiful new toy you bought. All children have fears, even infants. Fear of change and being alone are uppermost. Many children find their own “security blanket” to help them cope. It might be a favorite blanket or toy, but it will take on its own personality for the child. Accept it and address it by name, as if it were a family member. Be respectful of it, no matter what shape it’s in.

It isn’t “silly” to the child. Be sure to take this toy or blanket with you when you take the child for walks or to your home. Make sure it’s there for nap time, and always take it back home! Once the child has chosen a favorite toy or blanket, consider buying two or more identical replacements immediately—if you can find them—and squirrel them away for the inevitable misplacement or loss. Of course the child probably will realize this is not his “real” friend, but it quickly will find its way into his heart.

The more time you spend with your new grandchild in the first year, the stronger the bond between you will become. When the child learns to recognize you and accept you as part of the family, he will stay with you willingly and look forward to spending time with you. If you live close enough, offer to babysit to let the parents have a much-deserved night out. If your home is baby-equipped, offer to babysit at your home during the day or evening. This allows the child to see you in your own environment, to feel comfortable away from home, and to experience differences in day-to-day living.

Hosting Baby

If you’ll be caring for a new grandchild in your home, make sure your baby equipment—however spartan—is safety approved. Porta-cribs are a good investment—they take up little room and might suffice for an entire year. You often can pick up used restaurant highchairs for a nominal amount. If you plan to transport the child in an automobile, be sure you have an up-to-date safety seat and know how to properly install and use it. This might require buying a new seat in the first few months as the child graduates from rear- to front facing.

As an alternative, have the parents deliver and pick up the child, trade cars or transfer the seat with the child. Having a stroller at your home is another good idea. New models allow for infant seats to be inserted into the stroller until the child is big enough to sit up unattended.

Be careful to follow the child’s diet exactly when caring for him. Ask, if you’re not sure—or have the parents bring food when they drop off the child. New dietary guidelines for infants recommend foregoing solid foods for several months and some foods for at least a year to avoid instigating allergies or ailments. The same foods you used to feed your own children might now be considered harmful to the baby if eaten before a certain age. Respect the parents’ wishes for “treats” as well.

Grandparents as Primary Caregivers

Occasionally, as a result of unexpected events, grandparents must become primary caregivers. As you might expect, this entails a major lifestyle change—one you should prepare for prior to the baby’s birth. If a teenage mother is still in school, the grandparents might become the baby’s primary caregivers while their own daughter attempts to get her life back in order, finish school or learn job skills—especially if mother and baby still live at home.

Under these circumstances, even the best-intentioned new grandparents might disagree with the new mother over childcare, including who will make ultimate decisions and when each will be caring for the child. Open communication before the baby is born is a good solution. Set guidelines and allow for both quiet and social time for each individual in the household.

Parents who become incarcerated or who must undergo in-patient alcohol- or drug rehabilitation cannot care for the child by themselves. In that case, the grandparents might need to take over on a temporary or permanent basis. Having a baby’s care suddenly become your responsibility is a life-altering situation.

It might be necessary to hire a lawyer to obtain legal guardianship of the child and ensure the courts cannot place the child in foster care. If the grandparents live in a different state than parent(s) and child, they also might face legal battles when trying to take the child out of state.

A present-day dilemma for many grandparents is providing childcare while parents serve in the military. A young husband or wife fighting for our country might be called for duty, leaving the other parent without childcare. Service wives and husbands then might move in with their own parents or ask for childcare help. In cases where both parents are in the active military or National Guard, grandparents might become the child’s full-time caregivers.

Occasionally, tragedies result from illness, accident or war. If one or both parents die, grandparents might assume guardianship of their grandchild. Some states require that the parents’ wills designate a legal guardian, lest the courts decide the child’s fate. Therefore, it’s wise for parents to prepare for the unexpected as soon as the baby is born and establish wills stating a chosen guardian for the child. Although you might hesitate to “meddle,” suggest that your children create a will within the first few months after the baby arrives.

Missing Your New Grandchild

The flip side of the caregiver grandparent is the grandparent who seldom sees the grandchild. You may live far away, be unable to leave a job, have personal health issues or ailing parents to care for; or your family might be estranged because of disagreement or divorce. Even if you are unable to visit your new grandchild, you can still participate in his life.

A digital camera and e-mail (as previously mentioned), snapshots or movies can bring that little one to life for you at once. To bring you to life for the baby, you can buy an inexpensive picture frame that allows you to not only insert your photo but also record a 30-second voice message. As the baby ages, you can establish a regular time to call and talk to him so that he recognizes your voice.

If estrangement or divorce has divided your family, your ability to see your grandchild might be severely limited. If you’ve had a disagreement with your own child, he or she might not want you to see the child. If the parents are separated or getting a divorce, the custodial parent may not want the grandparents on the other side to visit the grandchild. If one parent remarries, the stepparent might exclude the former in-laws.

Divorce is a sad but common problem, and courts typically are hesitant to grant grandparents visitation rights. It’s probably best to stay out of your child’s marital problems, avoid taking sides, and instead focus on finding whatever means possible for developing a positive relationship with your grandchild.

With all the possible family dynamics, being a “good” grandparent might have different connotations for grandparent, parent and child. Despite the family structure, try to adhere to a few general rules. Never knowingly break the parents’ rules, put yourself in the middle of a parent-child issue, criticize the parents in front of the child or side with one parent over the other.

Another good rule, especially as the child ages and spends more time with you: Never “tell” on her—unless it’s a safety or legal issue. Settle the issue as best you can while you are with her and leave it at that. After all, mom and dad deserve a break from child-rearing problems. Moreover, grandchildren should feel comfortable with you and be able to tell you anything. It will pay off royally down the road as they enter their teen- and young adult years.

Parting Thoughts

Yes, grandparents, you can “spoil” your grandchild, but be careful not to undermine the parents’ authority or offer things they don’t want their child to have. Yes, grandparents, you can discipline your grandchild, but only if the parent isn’t present to do it instead. Above all, as time goes by, you can provide some very special things: unconditional love without needing to discipline on a daily basis, full attention without leaving to tend the washer or mow the lawn right now, a shoulder to cry on without passing judgment, and a word of advice without sounding preachy.

Children are quick to detect love—and just as quick to give it back. Love them, spend time with them and learn what matters to them. Acknowledge and help them through their fears. Meet and welcome their friends. Show them you’ll always be there for them. And, most importantly, enjoy them to the fullest. Whether you are an occasional person in their lives, a nearby presence or a primary caregiver, your time cannot be better spent. They are little for such a short time.

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