On a recent Monday evening, 20 soon-to-be grandparents gathered in a Stanford Health Care classroom to get their grandparenting skills up to speed before the arrival of the newest members of their families. Most of them hadn't swaddled, fed or cared for a baby in decades, and with advanced technology, new research and different family dynamics, some of the accepted practices of baby care from those days have changed.
The group, which included 14 women and six men, shared information about their grandchildren's impending births. Some — including a couple from Bangladesh and another from Florida — said they'd moved to the Bay Area specifically to help with child care. Several said they were taking the class at the request of their children or that their kids had paid the $65 tuition as a gift for them to attend.
The "Grandparents Seminar" at Stanford is part of a growing trend to help new grandparents become better informed about the basics of infant care and make the most of their unique role in the family.
"The story of what's happening in this community is that grandparents — many grandparents — are doing child care, either full time or part time," said grandmother Marilyn Swarts, who worked for decades as a labor-and-delivery nurse and nurse manager and has been teaching the monthly grandparents class offered through Stanford Children's Health for the past 15 years.
Swarts' 2.5-hour session, which covers some of the latest pediatric thinking on newborn care, attracts grandparents from throughout the region and consistently sells out.
Swarts tells her students: "You've all brought up great kids, but today there are some pretty significant differences from the way we did things."
At the top of that list, Swarts said, is the way infants should be put to sleep. To reduce risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), babies always should be placed on their backs on a firm mattress "with absolutely nothing in the crib — no bumpers, no blankets," she said.
Such advice comes as a surprise to many prospective grandparents who, prior to the mid-1990s, typically were advised to position infants on their stomachs for sleep. One soon-to-be grandmother said she'd retrieved old family photos in which her babies were "sleeping on lamb's wool, on their stomachs, with bumpers and little toys — the whole nine yards."
It's now understood that stomach sleeping, blankets and crib bumpers increase the risk of SIDS, according to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The Sudden Infant Death rate in the United States has dropped by about 50% since the agency's "Back to Sleep" campaign was launched in 1994, saving thousands of lives.
Also new to many grandparents are the "skin to skin" and "rooming in" practices in today's maternity wards, which have brought an end to nurseries in many hospitals over the past decade, Swarts said. Instead of nurses whisking a newborn away for a checkup and a bath, the baby is placed belly down directly on the mother's chest right for the first hour or more after birth. Newborn assessments are done in that position, and babies not requiring special medical attention remain in the rooms of their parents — yes, dads stay overnight in the hospital, too — throughout their hospital stay.
Swarts covers a host of other topics in her monthly evening sessions: the resurgence of swaddling, breastfeeding, cord clamps, cloth versus disposable diapers, introduction of solid food and peanuts, baby food pouches, colic, soothing methods — including baby-soothing apps — warnings against honey and baby powder and more.
She reminds grandparents to update their flu vaccinations and to wash their hands often. She notes that today's car seats are so complicated that parents and grandparents are advised to have their installation double checked at the police or fire station.
But Swarts stresses that her single-most important message for grandparents — repeated throughout the session — is to resist the urge to offer unsolicited advice to their child and their child's partner.
"Zip your lip. Bite your tongue," she said. "They are the parents of this baby. Your job is to support and empower them to be good parents."
Swarts often repeats that she has "scars on my tongue" from choking back advice to her daughter when the daughter's first baby was born 18 years ago. At that time, Swarts's son-in-law was serving in Afghanistan and her daughter was living with her.
"I really had to let her learn to be the mother rather than be the expert — and that's a hard one when that's your expertise."
With a newborn, she advises grandparents to offer assistance that allows parents to focus on learning to care for their baby. Often most helpful are chores such as meal preparation, laundry, pet care, cleaning and shopping, she said.
"Refrain as much as you can from saying, 'This is the way we did it for you,'" Swarts said. "They don't want to hear that. This is their experience. If they ask you, OK, you can say, 'We tried this.'
"And as you see how they're evolving as parents, just take joy in that."
For more information, go to stanfordchildrens.org.