Right From the Start
Clarifying roles and expectations before a baby is born
by Susan Miller, BScN
The arrival of a new baby is an eagerly anticipated event. But even joyful events such as weddings, holidays and the birth of a baby can cause stress in the family if there is a lack of clarity around roles and expectations. For this reason, it is wise for expectant parents and grandparents to discuss their wishes with each other right from the start. Here are some of the most common issues that come up between the older and the younger generation.
Announcing the pregnancy. It is now possible to have a pregnancy confirmed just days after conception. This exciting news is often shared with the grandparents in the early weeks of pregnancy. In the flush of excitement it is temping for grandparents to share this news with their friends, but the expectant parents may want to keep their announcement under wraps for a number of weeks or months. Grandparents need to clarify with the expectant couple when it is time to “tell the world.”
Boy or girl? From my observations, about 50 per cent of expectant couples find out the sex before the baby is born. Even if the couple knows the sex of their baby, they may want to keep this information to themselves. Gracious grandparents accept this and happily anticipate the surprise when baby is born.
Naming the baby. While it is interesting to get others’ opinions about prospective baby names, doing so can turn into a big stress and hassle for the expectant parents. Grandparents understandably have their preferences for baby names, but sharing these thoughts with the new parents may be taken as interference. Most pregnant couples prefer to decide on baby’s name together and then announce it once their baby is born.
Gifts for the baby. There is a plethora of wonderful and exciting things you can buy for babies these days. New parents and grandparents may be dazzled and overwhelmed by the choices and recommendations made by friends and sales people. The three major items parents usually shop for before the baby is born are the infant car restraint system, stroller and crib. Careful research is required to ensure that the items purchased meet all current safety standards and are also convenient to use. Most parents have some idea of the other items that they want for their new baby and may already have some hand-me-downs from friends. Grandparents need to check with the parents for ideas on what to buy and if the expectant mother would want a baby shower before the birth. Yes, this takes some of the fun and surprise away, but it is preferable to disappointments and hurt feelings. There will always be opportunities for surprises in the future.
Visiting at the hospital. While some parents have their babies at home with a registered midwife, the majority of expectant parents give birth in a hospital. The decision to have grandparents involved during the birth of the baby ultimately rests with the expectant couple and especially the mother. First-time parents may not anticipate the intensity of labour and birth. Having other family members in the room or even waiting outside may become a burden to the labouring mother.
Most couples find their birth experience to be profoundly intimate. The bonding that a couple experiences by going through the birth together helps to set a positive tone for their future parenting years. In the hours and days after birth, new parents and their baby need a lot of rest and privacy. This time is often called the “Babymoon.” For breastfeeding to get off to a good start the baby needs to go to the breast early and often. As the mother holds her baby skin to skin, he is learning how to find his mother’s breast and to latch on. This takes a lot of practice and focused time and sensitivity. Having the baby at the breast frequently is nature’s way of stimulating the mother’s body to make milk for her new baby. These first days are also the “window of opportunity” to stimulate the milk-producing cells that will sustain milk production in the weeks and months to come. This is not the time for visitors to be sitting in the mother’s hospital room holding the baby for hours on end. Most first-time parents do not appreciate all of this until it is too late and they are running into significant breastfeeding challenges. This is why visits with the new family during the first few days need to be very short and sweet.
Once baby and parents are home. There seems to be an unspoken expectation that the grandparents will be on the scene as soon as baby comes home. In many circumstances this may be the very best thing, but it all depends on the people, the culture and the family dynamics. Generally, if grandparents are coming from far away and will be staying with the new family, it is best to wait until the baby is at least a few weeks old.
In the first weeks, most first-time parents need time alone together to get to know their baby and to gain experience and confidence in their new roles as parents. Fathers are expected to be more hands-on and involved than in previous generations. In the past, the new mother’s mother or sister helped her out in the early days after the baby was born, but now the new father is expected to provide much of this support. In the first few days fathers need this opportunity to care for the mother and the new baby. Having even the most “maintenance-free” visitors in the home can be tiring and distracting for the new parents at this time. Grandparents can help by respecting the new parents’ wishes for privacy and by affirming their parenting approaches. Dropping by unannounced is never on, but phoning ahead to deliver ready-made meals and snacks is much appreciated by the always hungry, sleep-deprived new parents!
Knowledge of current “best practice” in baby care. Many recommendations about baby care have changed in the last 30 years and grandparents are often taken aback by these changes. Also, practically everything that is sold for babies from clothing and toys to cribs and car seats must comply with stringent safety standards. Baby powder and baby oil are no longer considered safe, and smoking around babies or in the home where they live is considered a health risk for the babies. Exclusive breastfeeding is the goal that most mothers strive for, and solid foods are not introduced until six months of age. Babies must always sleep on their backs as this significantly reduces the risk of sudden infant death. Carrying the baby to calm her is the right thing to do, and using a soother (after breastfeeding is well established) is also considered appropriate. And in case you haven’t heard, circumcision is strongly discouraged by all informed medical practitioners. Circumcision is no longer covered by the provincial medical system and parents who insist upon circumcising their infant sons must arrange and pay for this privately.
Childcare and Babysitting. Some grandparents are thrilled to take on the task of childcare once mom goes back to work. On the other hand, this may be the furthest thing from grandma and grandpa’s minds as they plan yet another winter escape to a warmer climate! New parents need to respect the choices that the grandparents have made in this regard.
It is wonderful for young children to have a warm and comfortable relationship with their grandparents and this is a goal for most families. Having grandparents babysit occasionally can provide wonderful opportunities for the establishment of this special relationship. Grandparents may want to “spoil” their grandchildren and do special things with them that they could not do when they were young parents themselves. This is appropriate providing that it does not undermine or conflict with what the parents believe is best for their child. Children do learn that the rules can be bent a little at grandma and grandpa’s house!
As parents share their precious little ones with grandparents, the greatest gift that the grandparents can give in return is recognition of the parents’ efforts to be the best parents they can be. New parents need to forge their own way, to make their own mistakes and to learn from them. Children thrive in an atmosphere of cooperation and respect and from the love they receive from all members of their family.
Susan Miller R.N. BScN is a Perinatal Educator and Certified Breastfeeding Counsellor. She works with prenatal and post-natal families in the Greater Victoria area.