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Back to sleep, and back off: Classes teach grandparents new rules of raising kids

May 5, 2014 at 12:42 PM ET

It’s been about a quarter of a century since Linda Younger had an infant to care for, so when she found out her 28-year-old daughter was having a baby – Younger’s first grandchild – she signed up for a class to help her brush up on the rules of modern grandparenting.

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Courtesy Linda Younger
Kelly and Linda Younger of Houston, Texas, hold their granddaughter Molly. "Kelly and I are smitten," Linda Younger said of the girl, who was born last August.

“There are a lot of things that have changed,” Younger, 65, who lives in Houston, Texas, told TODAY Moms. “So I really wanted to be able to know those things and do the right thing.”

She listed some of the changes:

“They’re not to go to bed on their stomach — I always put my babies on their stomach thinking that was the way they should sleep. … I had all kinds of things in the crib… (and) there’s nothing in the crib now.”

Younger’s class, at the Texas Children's Pavilion for Women, is one of many seminars around the country offered to grandparents who are eager to help out with a new baby, but who quickly discover that their experience doesn't always transfer to a new generation. Raising a child now comes with many rules that didn’t exist when they were caring for their own children.

They learn that babies should sleep on their backs to reduce the risk of SIDS, for example. Car seats are not optional, crib bumpers are no-no’s and baby walkers are out. Experts tell them to take it easy on the baby powder and to remember that breastfeeding is important.

“That’s a big one. Because often times, grandma can’t wait to get a hold of that baby and put a bottle in their mouth because that’s the easiest way to soothe the baby,” said Bonnie Bartman, a registered nurse and an education and development specialist at the Texas Children's Pavilion for Women, who teaches the grandparents’ class.

“A lot of these moms didn’t breastfeed because they didn’t know at the time the importance of it.”

Bartman, who said many of her students come to the seminar at the suggestion of their adult kids, developed the class when she realized that although grandparents really wanted to be helpful to their adult children, they were often doing things that were not helpful.

Besides educating grandparents about the latest rules on crib and car safety, she tells them about new dangers for children that come with modern technology, such as television tip-overs, which pose a growing risk for little ones as families upgrade to ever-bigger flat-screen TVs.

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Courtesy Colleen Jumper
Colleen Jumper enjoys the company of her three grandchildren.

Another hazard to watch out for: Button batteries, which weren’t around when grandparents were raising kids. They power lots of devices these days and can be harmful if swallowed or get lodged in ears or throats.

Colleen Jumper, a nurse in Bethalto, Ill., took a grandparenting class when her first grandchild was about to be born in 2009 and was surprised how much things had changed since she was a new mom.

“They gave you a test at the beginning of the class and I failed. I answered almost every one of the questions wrong,” Jumper, 54, said.

She used walkers on wheels for her babies, for example, while parents are now urged to throw out any baby walkers and use stationary activity centers instead.

Then, there’s the etiquette part of modern grandparenting. The class focused on honoring the way adult children wanted to raise their own kids, Jumper recalled.

“This is not about you — it’s about what this mom and this couple wants for the baby,” Bartman tells her students.

“You’re not the coach anymore; you’re not calling the shots. They are, and either you follow their rules or you might find yourself benched.”

As part of that philosophy, Bartman tells grandparents not to assume they will be present at the birth unless they’re invited and to always ask their kids, “What do you want my role to be in that?” Younger was in the delivery room last August, for example, but agreed to leave when the baby was born so her daughter could have some private bonding time.

Bartman urges grandparents to avoid trying to name the grandchild and to love whatever name the couple comes up with. She also advises them not to get involved with whether the baby is baptized or not.

Most of her students listen intently and accept the rules, she said.

Jumper — who now has three grandkids, plus one on the way — has been happy to adjust to the wishes of her adult children, whose parenting styles are very different, she said. The only modern philosophy she disagrees with is a total ban on spanking, since she found that a single swat was very effective when she was raising kids.

But for all the modern rules of grandparenting, the pleasures of watching a grandchild grow and thrive remain the same.

“I love it – it’s like my whole life. I’m totally smitten by being a grandmother,” Younger said.

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