Study: Grandparents Who Follow Outdated Parenting Advice May Unintentionally Pose Risks to Their Grandkids

They mean well, of course, but considering how much has changed since grandparents raised their own kids, these study results make a lot of sense.

It is not uncommon for young parents with babies and toddlers to be the recipients of lots of well-meaning advice from those who have been in the trenches before them. And while some of the advice is excellent (microwave a sock filled with dry rice for an earache!), there are some doozies that we'd be well off to ignore (rub some whiskey on those teething gums!).

But the well-meaning, if misguided, advice isn't always a laughing matter. In fact, a trio of studies showed that grandparents (or any caregiver, for that matter) using outdated health practices can unintentionally put their grandkids in harm's way.

baby holding grandmother's hand

"When grandparents step up to the plate, it can be wonderful for grandchildren but can also pose challenges in terms of lifestyle, finances, and mental and physical health to a somewhat older or elderly cohort," said senior investigator Andrew Adesman, M.D., in a press release.

Dr. Adesman presented his findings at the Pediatric Academic Societies Meeting in San Francisco in 2017. "In their questionnaires, a fairly large sample size of grandparents felt they were doing a good job but acknowledged they didn't have the support they often needed and that their role could be alienating in terms of their own peer group."

According to U.S. Census Bureau data, 7 million grandparents live with grandchildren under the age of 18, and a whopping 2.3 million of those grandparents have stepped into a parental role to meet their grandchildren's basic needs. Many more grandparents regularly help out with child care. And it's important to acknowledge how much has changed since these grandparents raised their own kids.

Grandparents Need Support and Access to New Information

It may be easy to assume that because grandparents have already raised children of their own that they have all the seasoned wisdom they need. But the truth is that there are some areas where even grandparents need to be given an update (or just a refresher) on what is safe and what is not.

One of the most frightening examples of grandparents not being aware of the latest health and safety information for kids is that they aren't always aware babies should be put to sleep on their backs, not their bellies, to reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

Consider, too, that Dr. Adesman found in his study that 44% of the 636 grandparents surveyed believe "ice baths are a good way to bring down a very high fever." We know now that ice baths can cause shivering and hypothermia; a lukewarm or cool bath is far safer.

But that doesn't mean that your children's grandparents can't safely care for your kids. It's all about access to information, support, and a willingness to learn. Grandparents can get quickly get up-to-date when it comes to the latest health and safety information with the right resources.

For example, in some cities, hospitals and other community centers have begun offering caregiving or grandparenting classes. These classes (available in-person and online) are similar to those offered to new parents, just with a focus on providing up-to-date information on health and safety for their target audience. Your child's pediatrician can also be a source of helpful information for grandparents who wish to take a more active role in child care.

With the right approach and attitude, these resources need not feel patronizing to grandparents. After all, it's not that grandparents don't have valuable experience and wisdom to share—it's simply that science has continued to evolve and with it the expert advice.

There Should Be More Awareness of Grandparents' Needs

Before accepting (or asking for) help from grandparents, it may be best to consider what's going on in their lives first. For some families, there isn't a choice, and grandparents are forced through circumstances to step up into a parenting role for their grandchildren—even if they don't have the emotional, mental, financial, or physical support that they may need. And that can spell trouble for the grandparents and the kids.

Dr. Adesman points out that modern grandparents in caregiving roles often don't have a support system. Their social lives are often limited by their grandkids, possibly preventing them from discussing the latest parenting trends and putting a strain on their well-being.

"One major takeaway from this study is that for grandparents who are raising grandchildren, their parenting can often take a toll in terms of their own physical and emotional health, and support groups can make a difference," Dr. Adesman says.

In cases where grandparents have assumed a primary caregiving role for their grandchildren, support is vital: "I think pediatricians need to also evaluate not just the health and well-being of the child, but really ask about the physical and social health of the grandparent that has assumed responsibility for raising that child as well. Because although the grandparents often elected to take on this role, it's not something they planned for and it can represent a challenge in many domains. Many grandparents are up to the challenge, but it may come with certain costs," says Dr. Adesman.

But for those families where grandparents will be involved in child care but not serving primary caregivers, it's all about respectful and open communication. Communication is key to helping grandparents understand young children's needs and that of their parents, which also means knowing when to defer to parents for things like discipline style, treatments for illnesses, and other important decisions. Communication is also key to understanding the grandparent's needs, limitations, and boundaries. It's a two-way street.

The takeaway for parents: If a grandparent is helping to care for your child, it's a good idea not to take anything for granted regarding what they may know or understand. Before your little one spends the day alone with Grandma or Grandpa, consider having a family meeting to go over guidelines and expectations. Take the time to set boundaries around what they are and aren't responsible for while your children are in their care. Ultimately, everyone will feel more confident and better prepared.

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