K.C. Summers is chief of editorial copy at AARP Media.
It was the Snotsucker that really blew me away.
As a (perhaps overenthusiastic) newbie grandmother, I was up to date on a lot of the breakthroughs in baby care — the “back to sleep” movement, blanketless cribs, the importance of “tummy time.” But the little things matter, too — like the Snotsucker, a disarmingly simple Swedish invention that takes infant nostril unclogging to a whole new level. Recalling the horrible bulbous contraptions of a generation ago, I can only marvel. Equally cool: the new diapers with indicator strips that tell you if the baby’s peed or not. Also, car seats that click into place, then morph into strollers. With cup holders! Pure genius.
Becoming a grandparent for the first time is like revisiting an exotic country that you loved long ago, only to find that everything’s changed — the layout, the customs, even the language. The experience is just as wonderful as ever, but it takes a while to get your bearings.
So when my firstborn had her firstborn last fall, I signed up for a course. Yes, grandparent classes are now a thing. Unheard of a generation ago, they’re increasingly being offered across the country, usually through hospitals or senior centers. For this development, thank the baby boomers, who’ve embraced our new role as grandparents with the single-minded enthusiasm we once reserved for antiwar protests and macrame wall hangings; and our progeny, the millennials, who think of their parents as best friends and want us to participate fully in nurturing the newest members of the family. Plus, they really need the help — and who better than good old Mom and Dad?
As the popularity of the classes makes clear, this generation of grandparents is more engaged than their predecessors. “The boomer generation is cresting, their kids are having kids, and they want to be involved,” says Ellen Breslau, editor in chief of the popular Web site Grandparents.com. “It’s a two-way street: The kids keep the grandparents young, and the grandparents can share their wisdom and learning. It’s a very symbiotic relationship between the two, in a way that’s very different from their relationship with their own kids.”
All very true. But in my experience, there’s another factor that makes this adventure such a delight and so different from my relationship with my own mother: There’s simply less of a generation gap between my daughter and me. We’ve shared clothes, career advice, Facebook likes — and now this awesome baby. My mother was a committed and much-loved grandparent, but she and I weren’t always on the same page when it came to child-raising.
That’s typical, says Connie Livingston, president of the Raleigh, N.C.-based International Childbirth Education Association. “There isn’t the friction today that there once was between expectant parents and their parents. Before, it was: ‘Why aren’t you feeding the baby solid food yet? Why are you putting her in a car seat? Why aren’t you circumcising him?’ That produces a lot of friction and makes it difficult for expectant parents, who are very vulnerable.”
With the new lack of friction comes acceptance — on both sides. Most elders don’t take offense when their kids suggest they need a refresher course in baby care. And some of us sign up of our own accord, knowing we need help.
“They know they need to learn how to sleep the baby, how to feed the baby, what kind of gear to get,” Breslau says. “I’m not surprised that grandparenting classes are so popular, because these grandparents really love their grandkids.”
The best grandparent classes are taught by registered nurses who are certified childbirth educators. Curriculums vary but generally cover the latest best practices in maternal and newborn care; updates on products and trends; advice on helping the new parents cope; and tips to make babysitting, baby sleepovers and grandparent visits go smoothly. My two-and-a-half-hour class cost $35; other hospitals around the area charge about $40 for similar sessions.
Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington began offering monthly grandparent classes about a year ago after requests from soon-to-be parents in its childbirth classes, says childbirth education coordinator Carol Wyman. “They really want their parents to be up on all the new developments,” she says. “So much has changed.”
The changes start with the birth itself. Even if grandparents aren’t going to be present in the delivery room — and kids, feel free to undershare when it comes to, you know, the actual birth — it’s important to be aware of new advances so that everyone’s on the same wavelength, Livingston says.
That’s because almost everything about the birth process has changed over the past generation, she says, citing a new emphasis on involving partners (including in the delivery room), skin-to-skin contact immediately after birth (important for bonding), delayed cord clamping (can reduce complications for both mom and baby) and breast-feeding (it might be tricky in the beginning, so grandparents need to be supportive).
Yes, fellow grandmas, you may have bottle-fed your kids and they turned out just fine, but get over it. Or, as Wyman puts it a bit more sympathetically: “Sometimes it’s hard for grandparents to accept that there’s a very different way of doing things. . . . If the mother is struggling with breast-feeding, and the grandmother understands the benefits of breast-feeding, that makes her much more supportive and bonding.”
Another big change is the concept of “back to sleep” — the recommendation that babies be put down on their backs instead of their stomachs, to minimize the risk of suffocation. If you take nothing else away from grandparent class, pay attention to this one. The new practice is a direct reason that rates of sudden infant death syndrome have been greatly reduced , Wyman says.
On a more mundane level, a lot of the routine stuff has changed, too. There are new views on bathing the baby (don’t do it every day), burping (trust me: you’re doing it wrong) and swaddling. Oh God, swaddling. I never did master the baby-burrito moves. Fortunately, my daughter still lets me come by from time to time.
At 1 p.m. on a wintry afternoon, about two dozen grandparent-looking people took their seats in a brightly lit conference room at Virginia Hospital Center. I imagine everyone was thinking the same thing I was: Yikes, is that what I look like?
At each of our places lay a life-size plastic baby and a bunch of brochures about SIDS, postpartum mood disorders, poison control, mastitis, choking, baby hip dysplasia . . . this was going to be heavy.
But Debbie Walls, a registered nurse, certified childbirth educator and proud grandmother, put us at ease. You’re going to be such an important person in your grandchild’s life, she told us. What do you want to be called? She herself, she said, was Grammy. I rolled the name around in my mind, testing it out.
Emphasizing that she was sharing from both personal experience and the latest evidence-based research, she plunged in with the most important things we needed to know, have, get or take. I present the list here as a public service:
●The location of the nearest hospital with a pediatric ER.
●An approved car seat that’s been inspected.
●A flu shot.
●A Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis) shot.
●A notarized authorization for medical consent, if the parents are ever traveling and we’re in charge.
●A sleeper, sleep sack or wearable blanket, instead of blankets in the crib.
●A baby CPR class.
And we were off and running. We learned so much — from the ridiculous things people will try to sell us or our new-parent kids (no, you really don’t need baby-wipe warmers) to the scary (bad swaddling can cause hip dysplasia or bowed legs) to the sobering (put your purse or briefcase next to the car seat when you’re driving with the baby, so you won’t forget he’s back there) to the sublime (skin-to-skin contact works because the mom’s respiratory patterns and heartbeat are so familiar to the baby). We learned how to bottle-feed the baby, how to burp her correctly and (of course) how and where to put her down to sleep (in a crib with a firm, tightly fitting mattress — and with no toys, soft bedding, blankets, pillows, wedges or bumpers!). We learned why cotton nightclothes are preferable to flannel (overheating is a real danger, so just dress the kid lightly and set the room temp in a comfortable range for a lightly clothed adult).
And we learned some awesome diaper tips. Breathe through the mouth. Dilute the baby wipes in the beginning, since the solution can be caustic to a newborn’s delicate skin. And those little ruffles around the leg holes of paper diapers? They’re not cosmetic — if you open them up, the diaper won’t leak.
But I didn’t really need to take a course to pick up my favorite piece of advice: “Spoil your grandbaby. That’s a requirement.” Seven months into this miraculous new relationship, I haven’t had any trouble with that at all.