10 Ways New Grandparents Can Start Off on the Right Foot
March 22, 2021
If your son or daughter is about to welcome a new baby into the world, congrats! You might be filled with excitement and anticipation, like you can’t wait to dig in and shine in your new role. The grandparent-grandchild relationship is one of life’s most treasured connections, but navigating it—especially when raw, sleep-deprived new parents are involved—requires a certain kind of balance. (Think helpful but not overbearing, or curious but not critical, and you’re on the right track.) Master the formula and you might become a go-to babysitter, or at least score VIP invites to all the major holidays.
If you’ve ever studied fast-moving improv comedy, you know that “Yes, and…” is a cornerstone of the technique. It means you validate what your stage partner is saying as the truth, and then expand on it, thus making them look good and helping the scene succeed. Turns out this principle comes in handy for grandparents too. Let’s say your child or their partner suggests that you visit on a specific afternoon. You can say, “Yes, I’d love to, and I’ll also stop at the grocery store on my way—just send over a shopping list.” You’re accepting their idea and also showing the willingness to go an extra mile. See what we did there?
The new parents might be tired and overwhelmed, but they can still tell when you’re being annoyingly indirect. Refrain from asking things like, “do you think the baby needs a hat for the walk?” or “wow, Lucy looked like she was having a lot of fun with her other grandparents in those Facebook photos.” They can see through it, and it’s not doing you any favors.
New parents are probably already feeling a lot of self-induced pressure to get things right. They don’t want to hear how your friends’ grandkids are sleeping longer stretches, gaining weight faster or meeting milestones earlier. It can feel like you’re judging them, even if you’re just trying to help. Or if you’re remembering how your son—the baby’s dad—was sleeping beautifully through the night at 12 weeks old and you can’t figure out why the baby isn’t taking after him, just keep that to yourself. Of course, focusing on the positive stuff—like how curious and engaged the baby is!—is all good.
Truth: The times and trends have changed since you had kids. Whether the new parents are considering exclusively breastfeeding, choosing organic formula, practicing baby-led weaning, teaching baby sign language, babywearing or swaddling, your job is to embrace it all. Safety recommendations have changed as well—for example, babies now get put to sleep on their backs in an empty crib, and kids often remain backward-facing in car seats well past the age of 2. Pick up a current, trusted book about child development (or read through The Bump articles!) and you’ll impress everyone with your newfound knowledge.
As your grandchild transforms into a toddler with their own delightful personality, it can be tempting to offer lots of sweet treats or extra episodes of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood to win them over. (Who can resist that sweet smile?) But remember that wooing your grandchild’s parents is just as important—if visits with Grandma and Grandpa become associated with too much sugar and lack of boundaries, they may happen less often.
As a new grandparent, you can prevent misunderstandings—which can quickly morph into feelings of resentment—by encouraging open, honest conversation. For example, if the family is coming to your house to spend the night, try asking a few questions in advance. What time should dinner happen so they can pull off the bedtime routine without a hitch? (Note: If it’s 5 p.m., don’t get huffy about it.) Would they prefer to sleep in the family room off the kitchen or the quieter guest room? If the baby has started eating solid food, what would be helpful to have on hand? Were the parents hoping for a date night, or would they rather everyone spend time together? Savvy grandparents know to anticipate the need before it even pops up—this is their secret weapon.
Maybe you used to spend the night when visiting your child before they became a parent—but here’s a fact that can’t be overstated: Babies. Change. Everything. Some new parents may feel uncomfortable having houseguests as they’re getting the hang of the whole baby thing (this can be especially true if the mother is learning to breastfeed, which can require patience, practice and a quiet space). They might also be embarrassed that the dust bunnies and dishes are piling up. Others may welcome grandparents on the premises, especially if they have enough room for everyone to be comfortable. Ask about their preferences when making plans to visit, and don’t take offense to whatever their answer might be.
When you do come over, don’t expect to be entertained: Bring food for the parents (offer to heat it up and do the dishes after, if you’re able to) and let them know you’re happy to keep an eye on the baby while they rest or shower. You might even suggest they take a walk alone, which can feel like emerging from a dark cave after being cooped up with a newborn.
It’s highly likely that the new parents are going to do things differently than you would have, whether it’s choosing an unusual name, putting a young baby in daycare or skipping purées in favor of finger foods. Unless your counsel is specifically sought out, “zip the lip” should be your mantra. Keep your opinions to yourself, with one exception—you always, always, always love the baby’s name. Even if you don’t initially, that will change with time.
We know, we know. It’s fun to shop for a new baby. And no one is going to fault you for giving some adorable outfits (especially when tiny socks and hats are involved) or a coveted registry item like a stroller. But as a grandparent, it can be tempting to go overboard with the shiny new loot—after all, you’re not the one who has to find a place to store that massive baby activity center or ride-on toddler Maserati. Instead of caving to your own whims, try to listen closely and suss out what they might appreciate. If they’re tight on space, maybe they’re eyeing a doorway jumper or a folding high chair. Do they need bathing suits and sun hats for an upcoming beach trip? And some families would rather skip the presents altogether and instead have money earmarked for things like parent and baby swim lessons or a college fund (it’s never too early!).
Since there isn’t yet a COVID-19 vaccine for babies and children, new parents may have lots of feelings about introducing their weeks-old little one to others, especially indoors. If you’re vaccinated and they still want you to wear a mask, go with the flow. If they’d like you to remove shoes before coming in because the baby spends a lot of time on the floor, plan to smile and wear nice socks. And of course, washing your hands before holding a baby is always the smart thing to do, pandemic times or not.