Study: Grandparents May Be Causing Kids Harm With Their Outdated Parenting Beliefs

They mean well, of course—but consider that a lot has changed since grandparents raised their own kids, and these study results make a lot of sense.

I recall my mother-in-law offering up this tip when my first daughter was a teething baby: "Just rub some whiskey on her gums!" Of course, I knew this advice was outdated and opted to skip it. But a new trio of studies shows that grandparents practicing outdated health practices could actually be putting their grandkids in harm's way.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, an astounding 7 million kids in the U.S. were being raised only by 2.7 million grandparents in 2012. And many more grandparents help out with childcare.

Of course, much has changed since grandparents raised their own kids. Who knows; maybe rubbing whiskey on teething babies' gums wasn't so misguided in 1950?

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. 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." The reality is that ice baths can cause hypothermia. A lukewarm or cool bath is far safer.

Given the findings, it's advisable for grandparents to take care-giving courses before caring for kids, even part-time. Pediatricians can also help out by providing grandparents with the most up-to-date methods. This is especially crucial given that, according to Dr. Adesman, modern grandparents 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 said. "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."

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. It's not that they mean any harm, of course; it's just that many things have changed since they were parents.

So although sometimes I feel like I'm nagging my parents with the many instructions I offer before I leave them in charge of my kids, this research is a good reminder that you can never be too detailed. Just be sure to use a gentle tone instead of lecturing them. After all, they are trying to help.

Melissa Willets is a writer/blogger and soon-to-be mom of 4. Find her on Facebook where she chronicles her life momming under the influence. Of yoga.

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