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Clashing Parenting Styles: Grandma's Way vs. Your Way
A guide to handling unwanted parenting advice from your mother or mother-in-law, from rice cereal in the bottle to whiskey as a teething remedy
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When my first son, Ben, was born three years ago, my mom and mother-in-law generally bit their tongues when it came to doling out advice, but my husband's grandmother was another matter. At various times she insisted that I was overfeeding (he nurses too much!), underfeeding (give him a bottle already!), and that I should put some cereal in his bottle to help him sleep through the night (you've heard that one too, right?). As if parenting a newborn wasn't confusing and exhausting enough, I felt drained by trying to politely deflect her suggestions.
That's not to say that our mothers or grandmothers don't have plenty of great advice to offer -- they do! (They raised you and your husband, right?) But sometimes their advice can be outdated, wrong, or even downright dangerous. We checked in with two of our Mom Squad members, Dr. Lara Zibners and Denene Millner, to help you determine what advice of Grandma's is worth following, what should be ignored, and how to keep your sanity in the process.
Grandma's Way: Formula is just as good as breast milk. I gave you formula and you turned out just fine.
Your Way: You want to at least give breastfeeding a shot. Yes, you complain about sore nipples and 3am feedings... but you still want to stick it out. And seeing a can of formula magically appear in the kitchen cupboard isn't helping.
Who's Right? Pediatrician and mom of two, Dr. Lara Zibners, says, "Breast milk is perfectly designed for infants and is the preferred first food. That said, not everyone can breastfeed for any number of reasons. But in the first few days of life, breast milk is chock full of essential immunoglobulins (antibodies) that can protect a baby's immature immune system. It has been shown to possibly decrease the incidence of allergies and ear infections as well as a host of other benefits. Commercial formula attempts to recreate the contents of breast milk but isn't a perfect replicate. Plus, breastfeeding means you've always got a ready meal wherever you are and it's cheap!"
How to Handle It: Parenting and relationship expert and author Denene Millner counsels moms who feel like they have to defend their choice to breastfeed to fall back on biology. She suggested saying in a respectful but firm manner, something like, "This is my choice, and this is the way I want to feed my baby. There is milk in my breasts for a reason, and I'm going to go ahead and use it."
Grandma's Way: You're still nursing? Aren't you worried you're stunting her development? (We've heard extended nursing blamed for everything from speech delays to lesbianism!)
Your Way: If you're breastfeeding, you may have a personal goal of doing so exclusively for six months (as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics), and then continuing to nurse following the introduction of solids for a year, or even longer. If nursing is going well and you and baby are both enjoying it, who's to say when you should stop?
Who's Right? Dr. Zibners tells moms to go for it. "Most pediatricians strongly encourage breastfeeding until at least one year. Going beyond that is a very personal choice. Up to one year, the benefits are obvious. Breast milk is designed to change and adapt as a baby gets older, to perfectly meet his needs as he grows." Additionally, the AAP recommends continuing to breastfeed for as long as mutually desired by mother and baby, and the World Health Organization recommends continued breastfeeding up to 2 years of age and beyond.
How to Handle It: Consider why Grandma is suggesting you wean. If she's weirded out by extended nursing, politely inform her that not only is what you're doing normal, it's medically recommended. If she's merely looking to snag some time with baby, let her help with another task, like bathing (or better yet, changing some dirty diapers!).
Grandma's Way: Give that baby some real food! Don't you see how he's eyeing your dinner?!
Your Way: You're looking forward to introducing baby to new foods, but want to wait until your pediatrician gives the OK.
Who's Right? Dr. Zibners explains that introducing solids is important nutritionally and developmentally -- at the right time. While babies need the fat and calcium in breast or bottled milk, "by six months, an exclusively breastfed infant is starting to run out of the iron stores he built up in the last weeks of pregnancy and requires an iron source, such as fortified cereal."
Additionally, feeding teaches babies how to accept and swallow new tastes and textures. "If a baby isn't introduced to solids in this 6-7 month window, it may rarely cause issues down the road with acceptance and ability to take them."
Before four months, solids can pose a choking hazard and may increase the risk of allergies. By about four months, some babies show signs of readiness -- they can hold their heads up pretty well, and they're starting to lose the tongue thrust reflex. But that doesn't necessarily mean they're ready. "There isn't a complete consensus among doctors about the 4-6 month window [for introducing solids] with many physicians recommending waiting until a baby seems interested and not for a specific day on the calendar."
How to Handle It: Tell Grandma that introducing solids too early could be harmful, but that you'll be happy to let her feed baby (and clean up the mess!) once the timing's right.
Water for Babies
Grandma's Way: Babies need to drink water, too. It's summer -- he's going to get dehydrated!
Your Way: Sure, you've probably heard that breast milk is all that baby needs, and you hadn't read anything about needing more water than what formula calls for, but it sure is hot outside...
Who's Right? Step away from the pitcher. Dr. Zibners says, "This one is dangerous potentially. All the water a baby needs is in the formula or breast milk. Giving too much water to an infant (especially under six months) can cause severe imbalances in their electrolytes, to the point of intractable seizures. Babies don't sweat effectively, so they aren't losing fluid when it's warm. But they are at risk of overheating, so keep everyone in the shade and cool."
And don't mess with the formula-to-water ratio. "Powdered formula needs to be mixed exactly as instructed. This is a common one where someone either thinks the baby needs fattening up and throws in another scoop or tries to dilute it down to make it last longer and the baby winds up with serious complications."
How to Handle It: Stick to your guns and refuse the water. Millner suggests saying to Grandma something like, "I appreciate your sharing your opinion with me, but the pediatrician says that no additional water is needed, and in fact, it could hurt baby."
Grandma's Way: That baby's crying because he's hungry!
Your Way: You're following your pediatrician's advice, trying to follow baby's hunger cues. And, if you're nursing, this comment from Grandma might feel particularly tough to hear as you may already feel uncertain if baby is eating enough.
Who's Right? "Babies and toddlers will stop eating when they are full, with very few and rare exceptions," says Dr. Zibners. "A baby who is pooping, peeing and growing normally is getting enough to eat. Breastfed babies who are going through a growth spurt will also feed more frequently, which tells the breasts to increase production and then once they are getting enough, they'll space back out again. Babies cry for all kinds of reasons -- hunger is just one of them."
How to Handle It: Tell Grandma that as long as baby has sufficient wet and dirty diapers daily and is putting on the appropriate amount of weight between check-ups, she can rest assured that he's getting enough to eat. Dr. Zibners suggests that if she continues to insist that baby is underfed, consider taking her to your next weight check at the ped. "A newborn should be gaining 1/2 to 1 ounce a day once they've regained birth weight. Seeing the number on the scale should help convince her."
Beer for Milk Production
Grandma's Way: Drink a beer to help your milk production.
Your Way: You're confused. A beer sounds great after nine months of pregnancy-induced sobriety, but is it safe for baby?
Who's Right? Dr. Zibners says, "Lots of people do think that one dark beer a day might help with milk production. However, the pat answer is that alcohol should generally be avoided while breastfeeding."
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that "breastfeeding mothers should avoid the use of alcoholic beverages, because alcohol is concentrated in breast milk and its use can inhibit milk production. An occasional celebratory single, small alcoholic drink is acceptable, but breastfeeding should be avoided for 2 hours after the drink." (Kourtney Kardashian learned this one the hard way.)
Looking to improve your flow? Dr. Zibners says, "There are lots of other things that are purported to increase milk production so if you aren't comfortable with a beer, try some milk thistle, or marshmallow root."
How to Handle It: Do what makes you feel comfortable, as long as you have more than two hours before you need to feed again. If you're concerned about your milk supply, consider talking to a lactation consultant or a local La Leche League leader about other remedies.
Grandma's Way: Giving peanut butter, eggs, fish, cow's milk, and honey to babies is fine -- you worry too much!
Your Way: With all of the talk about scary food allergies these days, the thought of introducing a potentially dangerous allergen to your baby is terrifying.
Who's right? When it comes to the first four items, Dr. Zibners has a surprise. "Okay, shocking as it may be, Grandma might actually be at least partly right about this, although the jury is still out. There is a growing body of evidence that the delayed introduction of certain foods might actually increase the odds of developing an allergy, particularly for at-risk kids. That said, there is an immense amount of controversy and study happening right this minute because we can't yet be certain how genetics and other environmental factors figure into this. The theory that we're not challenging the immune system enough early on and that this may promote the development of allergies is pretty compelling, though."
Dr. Scott Sicherer, professor of pediatrics at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City and clinical researcher at the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute, agrees that Grandma's the winner of this round. He explains that in a 2008 clinical report in the journal Pediatrics, the AAP revised an earlier recommendation to delay the introduction of potentially allergenic foods (specifically milk, egg, peanuts, tree nuts, and seafood), concluding that such delays have not been proven to prevent the development of atopic disease (eczema, asthma, allergic rhinitis, and food allergy). Although there is no firm timeline for introducing potentially allergenic foods, Dr. Sicherer counsels families with a history of food allergies to pay close attention to any signs of allergic reactions following the introduction of a new food.
But when it comes to honey or corn syrup, you should be vigilant. Dr. Zibners explains that these "may harbor botulism spores and can lead to infantile botulism in a baby with an immature immune system. Infantile botulism causes extreme constipation and weakness, usually leading to the need for artificial ventilation until a baby has recovered."
How to Handle It: Talk to your pediatrician about the best approach to introducing new foods to a child, and a pediatric allergist if your kid has a family history of allergies, according to Dr. Zibners. As for grandmothers who want to give a little honey to their little honey, Millner recommends standing firm. Fill Grandma in about the botulism risk; we're sure once she understands, she'll drop it.
Grandma's Way: Co-sleeping is dangerous for a little baby.
Your Way: In the early months, those nighttime feedings are exhausting, and it can be tempting to want to keep baby in bed with you so you can nurse lying down. Plus, it's cozy sleeping all snuggled up together.
Who's Right? Dr. Zibners says, "Co-sleeping is potentially dangerous. Accidental strangulation or suffocation can happen when an adult accidentally rolls over the child, when blankets and pillows are around or when the baby gets caught between the mattress and bed frame. Babies deserve an appropriate sleeping environment with a firm mattress, no fluffy bedding and their own space. All that said, the risk of SIDS is decreased by having an adult sleeping in the same room, especially in the first three months, so keeping the baby in a bassinet or Moses basket (which allows for bonding and breast feeding) is a good idea. Then move them off to their own room once you're both ready."
Dr. Judith Owens, Associate Professor of Pediatrics at the Alpert Medical School at Brown University in Providence, RI, adds that "there are certain high-risk situations where co-sleeping may be associated with an increased risk of accidental suffocation, for example moms who drink alcohol, smoke, take hypnotic medications, are obese, or sleep somewhere other than a bed (for example, a couch or chair). But, while the official stance of the AAP is to recommend against bed-sharing during the first year of life, that's not the same as room-sharing, or even a proximate sleeping space [where the baby is close by in a co-sleeper, bassinet, or Moses basket]. I think that a reasonable compromise is to have the baby in a separate but proximate sleeping space, to facilitate nighttime feedings."
How to Handle It: This is a tough one. The AAP and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) both recommend against co-sleeping for the health and safety of the child, while attachment parenting advocates argue that co-sleeping can be done safely, assuming certain guidelines are followed. The bottom line is that you should make yourself emotionally responsive while protecting baby's physical safety. For many, the best way to achieve that is to have baby sleep in the same room, but not in the same bed. In the end, this may ease both Grandma's worries and your own.
Cereal in the Bottle
Grandma's Way: Just add a little rice cereal in her bottle to help her sleep through the night.
Your Way: You're desperate for more sleep but your baby's not on solids yet.
Who's Right? Cereal is not the root of your sleep problem. Dr. Zibners says, "Plenty of studies have shown that solids don't make a child sleep through the night. Good sleep hygiene does -- which means helping a baby develop the ability to fall asleep on his own, and get back to sleep without assistance if he wakes up during the night. If a baby is too young to effectively take cereal off a spoon, he's too young for it. And he won't sleep longer. He'll just carb-load and get fat."
How to Handle It: Tell Grandma that these days, doctors say no rice cereal until baby can eat it from a spoon. And then feel free to hide the box.
Sleeping on Baby's Back
Grandma's Way: I put you to sleep on your tummy and you survived. Babies sleep so much better on their stomachs.
Your Way: Your pediatrician has talked to you about the importance of putting baby to sleep on his back since birth, in order to reduce the likelihood of SIDS.
Who's right? Dr. Zibners says, "A 50% reduction in SIDS deaths since 1996 [when the "Back to Sleep" campaign began] is a big deal. While SIDS is pretty rare, it's devastating. No one is exactly certain why back sleeping is so effective a prevention, although a possible theory is less rebreathing of exhaled carbon dioxide. So even if you really believe he sleeps better on his tummy (he probably doesn't), it's not appropriate except in very specific medical conditions. And once he can roll on his own, he can sleep however he'd like."
How to Handle It: This is another situation where you can easily fall back on medical discoveries as well as your doctor's advice, according to Millner. Simply explain that science now shows that back-sleeping is best for young babies, and that you trust your pediatrician to steer you in the right direction.
Pillows and Blankets
Grandma's Way: Every baby needs a cuddly blanket -- and who can sleep without a pillow?
Your Way: Everything you've read says to keep everything out of an infant's sleep space, so your crib is austere.
Who's Right? Get those pillows and stuffed animals out of the crib. "Covers and pillows are a strangulation and suffocation risk. Babies don't need a pillow. A thin blanket that is stretched across the lower half and tucked in to the sides and bottom of the crib is okay but even better is a blanket sleeper if you're worried about him getting cold. The room should also be kept slightly cool, never overheated, as a measure to reduce SIDS risk," says Dr. Zibners.
How to Handle It: Show Grandma these newfangled sleep sacks and swaddles -- cool, right? If she's insistent on a blanket or quilt because she made it or purchased it, suggest that she cuddle baby in it while she's awake.
Keeping Baby Inside
Grandma's Way: Germs, wind, the cold... the baby's too little to go outside!
Your Way: Yes, the thought of germs around your new baby is terrifying, but so is the thought of being confined to your home for the next several weeks. And isn't fresh air a good thing for kids?
Who's Right? Dr. Zibners says, "Of course, taking a baby into public places increases the risk of her catching something but keeping her inside and inviting the neighbors over does, too. There is nothing about being 'outside' that increases the risk of illness. It's an issue with exposure to lots of people and lots of germs. Newborns have a very immature immune system and may have more serious illnesses than older children would. So, it's fine to sit in the park with the baby, but it's not okay to go to a church picnic where there will be lots of people in close proximity."
How to Handle It: Gently explain to Grandma that the outdoors won't make baby sick -- people's germs will. This could be an opportunity to give her a chance to be helpful: consider asking her to come along for a walk to help keep folks (and their germs) at bay.
Hats & More Layers
Grandma's Way: That baby's cold -- he needs a hat and a sweater.
Your Way: You understand that at the very beginning of life babies need help regulating their body temperature, but a wool hat in July just seems a bit much.
Who's Right? Dr. Zibners said, "Very small babies don't do well with being cold but they don't do well overheated either. They do lose a fair amount of heat through their heads so if it is cold, a hat is fine. But they should be dressed appropriately for the ambient temperature. If you're comfortable, dress her about the same."
How to Handle: Explain to Grandma that over-dressing baby can potentially lead to dehydration, and overheating during sleep can also increase the risk for SIDS. Suggest that she save some of those layers for the many necessary outfit changes that are sure to come.
Avoiding the Mistakes Even Smart Moms Make
Reality Check: Grandma Won't Stop Giving
8 Things Grandparents Wish You Knew
Girl Talk: Rejection of Grandma
Safety Guidelines for Grandparents as Babysitters
Grandma's Way: You can't change a diaper without a shake of baby powder to prevent diaper rash.
Your Way: You've heard that diaper ointment or cream is better -- and no one you know has baby powder on their changing table.
Who's Right? Dr. Zibners says, "Baby powder gets wet and forms a sticky glue that adheres wetness to the skin and might cause a rash. Most baby powder is cornstarch-based but older ones had actual talc and could cause a serious lung reaction. Bottom line: It's not necessary and possibly harmful."
How to Handle It: Ask Gran to keep the baby powder away from baby and save it instead for household tasks like absorbing grease stains on clothes or dry-shampooing the family dog.
Fever & Alcohol
Grandma's Way: To bring down a fever, wipe her skin down with alcohol.
Your Way: When baby is sick, panic mode sets in. You're desperate to drop the fever, but the ped has only ever suggested over-the-counter fever reducers.
Who's Right? This practice is not safe for babies. Dr Zibners says, "Firstly, you don't have to bring down a fever at all if he's not uncomfortable. Fever is a natural immune response that might actually help us get better faster if allowed to do it's job (drive away the germs). For babies under three months, always call your pediatrician if the fever is 100.4 degrees or higher. But if a kid isn't feeling well and is crabby and unhappy, i''s fine to use a fever reducer such as ibuprofen (if the child is six months or older) or acetaminophen. (For babies under three months, do not administer acetaminophen without your doctor's OK.) Alcohol can be absorbed through the skin and there have been many reports of children being poisoned through topical rubbing alcohol usage. Alcohol poisoning can cause confusion and lethargy, coma and death."
How to Handle It: Explain that alcohol -- even applied on the skin -- can be dangerous. Make her feel like she's still the expert, though, when she holds your hand through taking baby's temp rectally!
Spoiling a Baby
Grandma's Way: You're spoiling that baby by picking her up every time she cries -- and by using the carrier all the time.
Your Way: There's nothing sweeter than cuddling with your babe, and she won't be portable forever. And, anyway, having her strapped to you in a carrier or sling is about the only way you can get anything done these days.
Expert Advice: Dr. Zibners says, "I don't believe you can spoil a baby younger than three months, but it's also good for a baby to be on his own sometimes. If you are a sleep-nut like me, then when he's asleep is a good time to be left alone to learn to sleep without a human nearby (a long-term parenting project). But some parents want the kid with them all the time and that's okay in the early days."
How to Handle It: Continue to address your infant's needs -- she's too young to be taught to self-soothe. Also, keep in mind that Grandma might be trying to tell you in her own passive-aggressive way that she's feeling left out. Hand the baby over while she's visiting -- and enjoy the hands-free time to get a few things done.
Grandma's Way: A little whiskey on the gums helps with teething pain.
Your Way: The idea of putting booze in your baby's mouth, even in small amounts, just doesn't sit right with you.
Who's Right? Dr. Zibners said, "Rubbing alcohol on a baby's gums is possibly dangerous. Because of a baby's size, the amount of alcohol that can cause serious poisoning is very little. Repeated dosing can quickly add up. Alcohol can cause serious respiratory depression and severe hypoglycemia in children, both of which can be fatal. So stick to a cold rag or an infant teething gel used only as directed."
How to Handle It: Tell Grandma thanks, but no thanks. Perhaps she should save her liquor for a much-needed cocktail at the end of a day spent listening to her grandbaby cry from teething pain.
Grandma's Way: Sweets and junk are a grandmother's prerogative.
Your Way: You might have fond memories of being spoiled with treats by grandparents, but now that you're the mom, you're worried that grandma's indulgences may ruin the healthy eating habits you're trying to promote at home.
Who's right? Dr. Zibners says, "I am personally of the belief that infrequent treats are better than completely not allowing them. It is good to teach children to prefer a healthy diet to junk, but if you make something entirely off limits, a kid will go completely berserk when he finally can get his hands on some. Nutritionally speaking, an occasional french fry isn't going to harm a kid."
How to Handle It: Dr. Zibners suggests, "Consider asking Grandma to offer both the fruit and the sweets, and just not make a big deal out of it." Millner adds that "grandmothers are rule-breakers by nature" when it comes to their grandchildren, so sometimes the best you can do is to model good eating habits at home, and let the kids know that the rules that apply at Nana's house are not the same as those at home. Given how much grandmas tend to enjoy showing their love through food, this may not be a battle you can easily win, especially if you're not around to keep the chips and cookies locked up.
The Clean Plate Club
Grandma's Way:Children need to finish every last bite on their plate before they may leave the table -- even if you have to sit there all night!
Your Way: While you're not looking to waste food, you also don't want your child to develop the habit of eating past the point of satisfying hunger.
Who's Right? "Two problems with this one. Firstly, one of our biggest societal problems is the fact that we've all lost our ability to know when we've had enough to eat," says Dr. Zibners. "If a child isn't allowed to decide when he's had enough to eat, he'll get used to eating more than he needs to."
She suggests not drawing any more attention to her plate. "The second big problem here is that little ones have very little control over their lives and the dinner table is one place where they can fight back. If you turn meals into a battle zone, it's not fun for anyone. Keep putting a variety of foods out, ignore them and eventually they'll eat what they need."
How to Handle It: Model appropriate portion sizes for the kids, and try to encourage Grandma to put less food on their plates to begin with, allowing the kids to ask for seconds if they're still hungry.
Grandma's Way: Sometimes kids deserve to be spanked -- today's parents just aren't stern enough!
Your Way: Hitting is never okay. Period.
Expert Advice: Dr. Zibners says, "Most experts agree that physical punishment not only is often ineffective but it teaches a child that physical aggression is how we control others. Hitting begets hitting. Figure out what makes your kid tick (dessert, TV, toys) and use the removal of that as a punishment instead."
Who's Right? Millner suggests that you "let everybody know up front, 'We're not hitting,' and give them a list of acceptable methods of punishment, like time-outs, losing permission to go to the movies if your child acts up, etc." If you learn that your parents have spanked your child either in direct violation of your request or because they were ignorant of your feelings prior to the incident, Millner suggests that you, "let them know, 'I didn't appreciate it. This can't happen again.' And explain that you will not leave them alone with your kids again if they can't honor this request." Grandparents should understand that your no-spanking request falls under the non-negotiable category.
Grandma's Way: When a child bites you, bite him back and he'll never do it again.
Your Way: You try to model good behavior for your kid -- which does not involve chomping.
Who's Right? Dr. Zibners says, "So tempting! Little ones who are going through a biting phase aren't cognitively mature enough to understand the full impact of their behavior. They bite for a variety of reasons: attention, self-defense, frustration, or experimentation. Try to figure out why she's biting. Biting back just reinforces the behavior. Avoiding situations where biting is likely to occur or recognizing the signs right before the bite and getting the kid out of there is most effective."
How to Handle It: Use your words -- just like the preschool teachers say -- and tell Nana to do the same. Offer grandma the following solution from Dr. Zibners: "A firm NO and removal from the situation is best."