Grandparents doing it differently – when Grandma’s advice could be unsafe.

The relationship between grandparents and grandchildren is very precious, however it is expressed – it gives children a sense of safety and protection, a link to their cultural heritage and family history and grandparents can add a new dimension to play and companionship to children as well as support for you.

However, the road to family harmony can be paved with a few rocky patches, especially when it comes to differences in parenting styles or outdated advice due to changes that have happened since you were a baby.

When Grandma’s advice is outdated

Advice is usually well-meant and grandparents are simply be trying to be helpful or feel connected to their grandbaby, some of grandma’s wisdom may now be outdated and even unsafe – even though she did a damn good job of raising you!

For instance:

Putting babies to sleep on their tummies.

Not only were babies popped down on their tummies to sleep, especially if they were ‘windy’, they were placed into bed with their heads at the top end of the cot and often tucked up with a lovingly made quilt over them. It was thought that placing a baby on their backs to sleep would mean they could aspirate vomit and choke.

However, due to a wealth of research into SIDS since you were a baby, we are now advised to place sleeping babies on their backs (not sides or tummies) and ‘feet to foot’ – placing baby at the bottom of the cot so she can’t wriggle down beneath the blankets; no quilts or doonas to prevent overheating; no hats when sleeping and it’s important to maintain a smoke free environment during pregnancy as well as around babies and children.

Although placing babies on their backs to sleep has been advised for several years, recent research funded by the charity River’s Gift is showing that some babies may be especially vulnerable if placed on their tummies to sleep: international research involving the University of Adelaide has uncovered a developmental abnormality in babies – especially in premature babies and in boys – that for the first time has been directly linked to cases of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

Researchers believe this abnormality, in the brain’s control of head and neck movement, breathing, heartbeat and the body’s responses to deprivation of oxygen supply, could be the reason why some babies sleeping on their front are more at risk of SIDS.

Strict feeding routines

In grandma’s day, she was most likely advised to follow a strict four hourly feeding routine. I have heard stories of heartbreak as grandmothers share their experiences of waiting outside the door of a crying baby, desperately watching the clock until it was time to feed their baby – of course, some (including me) would have broken these ‘rules’ but with trepidation that they would ‘spoil’ their baby (whatever that meant).

With such pressure on a new mother, is it any wonder we have a generation of grandmothers who believed they didn’t have enough milk, when it was actually the feeding schedules that were inappropriate?

We now know that breastfeeding works on a basis of supply and demand – the more milk removed, encourages breasts to make more milk, so stretching out feeds to fit a strict routine can compromise milk supply.

Research from the University of Western Australia also shows that although actual milk production doesn’t vary widely over a 24 hour period, individual women have different breast milk storage capacities. This isn’t necessarily related to the size of your breasts though, as some women with smaller breasts may have a good supply of milk- making glands, where a mother with larger breasts may have more fatty tissue. However, different storage capacities will mean that a woman with a smaller storage capacity will need to feed her baby more often to maintain a healthy milk supply and mothers with a larger storage capacity may be able to go longer between feeds (as long as their baby’s stomach capacity is big enough)

Your storage capacity isn’t something you need to worry about: Imagine drinking a litre of fluid over a day, if we are drinking this from a shot glass, we will need more refills and if we are drinking from a schooner, we will need fewer refills. So just consider, some of us have ‘shot glasses’ and some women have ‘jugs’ and this won’t affect your actual milk supply if you watch your baby, not the clock.

For tips to increase your milk supply, you can download Pinky’s FREE ebook ‘Making More Mummy Milk,Naturally’. 

Ditching night feeds

Not only was grandma advised to stick to a strict feeding routine, but she was most likely told to ditch the 2 am feed (yes, that was the time advised by her strict feeding routine) at six weeks!

Although you are unlikely to be advised to night wean your baby at 6 weeks, there is still enormous pressure around infant sleep and encouraging (read, training) babies to sleep ‘all night’ so it’s helpful to be armed with information. In reality, babies may need night feeds right through the first year and, even beyond this, cuddles and a quick drink of mama milk can soothe little night howls.

Although hunger is the obvious reason for a young baby who is growing rapidly to need night feeds, night nursing is about so much more than food. Breastfeeding is about comfort, connection and immunity, as well as food. It is also nutrition for a baby’s developing brain. This means that as your baby enters new developmental stages, he will most likely go on a feeding binge to fuel his growing brain.

When he has been exposed to a bug, your baby will need to ‘tank up’ on the amazing immune factors in your milk and when he is in pain or uncomfortable, perhaps from teething, the relaxing chemicals in breast milk will soothe your little one. Also, as your baby goes through normal stages of experiencing separation anxiety, he will want to connect to ‘the source’ through the security of your arms and the comfort of breastfeeding.

At night time too, prolactin, the hormone that facilitates breast milk production as well as bonding and attachment reaches the highest levels during night time breastfeeds. This means your baby will probably get the ‘best milk’ at night. Recent research also shows that eighty percent of our Seratonin receptors are in the gut and night time breastmilk is rich in tryptophan, a precursor to Seratonin – so this magic mummy milk is also helping the development of Seratonin receptors and a healthy foundation for future well-being.

Besides baby reasons for night feeds, the most important ‘mummy reason’ is maintaining your milk supply. In the early days, your breasts need frequent stimulation to ‘set’ your milk production capacity as your milk supply is influenced by post birth hormones. Also, in the first three months after birth, there is more breast development happening – you are developing more prolactin receptors, which will encourage your ongoing milk supply.

Your milk storage capacity can also influence your baby’s need to feed overnight as well as your ongoing milk supply: a mother with a large storage capacity has the room in her milk-making glands to comfortably store more milk at night before it exerts the amount of internal pressure needed to slow her milk production. On the other hand, if the baby of the small-capacity mother sleeps for too long at night, her breasts become so full that her milk production slows.

Looking for gentle, respectful ways to help your baby (and you) sleep without compromising breastfeeding or the beautiful bond between you and your little one? See my book Sleeping Like a Baby (it’s available on Audible too, if you don’t have time to read). You can download the first chapter FREE HERE.

Bottles of boiled water

 So, are you wondering how on earth grandma could have weaned a baby from night feeds as young as 6 weeks? As she left hospital with her newborn, the new mother would have been given a pep talk by her midwife to offer a bottle of boiled water instead of milk at the 2 am feed (yes the routine was that strict!)

It was also common advice to offer bottles of cool boiled water on hot days. While a nice cool drink of water for a hot sticky baby may sound reasonable, giving bottles of water to babies whether breast or formula fed can pose serious risks.

Giving water to newborns can affect your milk supply and your baby’s weight gains whether breast or formula fed (no calories in water!) and for all babies under six months, giving water can dilute the sodium in the baby’s bloodstream to the point where a potentially life threatening condition known as “oral water intoxication” develops, and this can lead to symptoms like low body temperature, bloating, and seizures.

According to physicians at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center in Baltimore, “even when they’re very tiny, babies have an intact thirst reflex or a drive to drink,” Dr. Jennifer Anders, a pediatric emergency physician at the center, told Reuters Health. “When they have that thirst and they want to drink, the fluid they need to drink more of is their breast milk or formula.”

Because babies’ kidneys aren’t yet mature, giving them too much water causes their bodies to release sodium along with excess water, Anders said. Losing sodium can affect brain activity, so early symptoms of water intoxication can include irritability, drowsiness and other mental changes. Other symptoms include low body temperature (generally 97 degrees or less), puffiness or swelling in the face, and seizures.

“It’s a sneaky kind of a condition,” Anders said. Early symptoms are subtle, so seizures may be the first symptom a parent notices. But if a child gets prompt medical attention, the seizures will probably not have lasting consequences, she added

Car seat safety

Back in the day….(60’s and 70’s) there were no car seat regulations or safety standards – there weren’t even any proper car seats in the 70’s. Babies were popped into a Moses basket on the floor between the front and back seat – or at best, on the back seat with a safety netting harness over the Moses basket to stop the baby being flung out in an accident or sudden braking event.

Of course, grandparents will be aware of car seats now but if they are going to be driving your baby or child anywhere, you will need to educate them on current regulations and how to choose and use an appropriate car seat or capsule and that there are fitting stations to ensure car seats are safely installed. If grandparents are regular carers, it would be helpful to buy a car seat for the grandparents’ car so you can have peace of mind that your little one will be safely transported.

Communicating with grandparents

 Consider, just as you are climbing the steep learning curve of being a new parent, grandparents are also growing into their new role. Grandma may be genuinely trying to make things easier by sharing her hard-earned knowledge or she may simply want to be more involved with her grandchild. When considering advice about your child, safety has to be your highest priority, however, it’s important to communicate respectfully because encouraging positive family relationships, especially between your child and their grandparents is also important. Please try and remember, grandparents did the best they could with the information available to them when they were new parents.

Find common ground: Ultimately, the issue here is not who ‘wins’, but encouraging a positive relationship between your child and their grandparents. Because your relationship with your child’s grandparents will be an ongoing one, it is important to try and find some common ground. Try asking for Grandma’s opinion on a fairly neutral topic or invite her to be more involved and give her positive feedback. For instance, ‘would you like to give him his bath?’ Or, ‘he loves it when you take him to feed the ducks.”

Stay calm: If you are confronted by unwanted advice, no matter how well-meaning, you can either tell her honestly, but politely, that you feel undermined by her advice or you can simply stay calm: take a deep breath and respond, “this works well for us,” or (baby’s name) feels happy when we….  (whatever you are doing that she is advising against). Another option is to thank Grandma for her tips and say, enthusiastically, “I’ll remember that,” then choose what information suits you and your little one and discard the rest.

Share new information: You might like to share some up to date information with your mother or mother-in-law -in-law by commenting enthusiastically about a new book you have discovered or perhaps some written information or research that reinforces what you are doing. It will work better to do this pro-actively before she bombards you with out of date information, so she isn’t put in a situation where she feels defensive.

Maintain a united front: If your partner starts to side with their mother against you, it is only natural that you want to cut the apron strings between them – with a very sharp pair of scissors!   However, the best advice is to remain calm: enlist your partner’s support by telling them how you feel without becoming angry or putting them in a situation that makes them feel they must ‘choose’ between you and their mother.

It can be difficult to stand up to your parents, but if you and your partner can agree on what really matters and you can support each other, you are more likely to succeed in setting boundaries.

Sit down together and make a list of what bothers you about each other’s families and decide which issues are worth standing firm on.

What you feed your baby or how you choose to discipline your child may be priorities that you won’t compromise, for instance. But if your mother-in-law wants to iron your husband’s shirts ‘properly’ or complains about how you mow the lawns (or don’t), perhaps you could let this one go, or share it as a mother-in-law joke. After all you, your partner and child(ren) are a family now, and it is time to establish your own values and traditions.


 Pinky McKay is Australia’s most recognised and respected breastfeeding and gentle parenting advocate. She’s an IBCLC lactation consultant, best selling baby care author and mum of five. Pinky had babies in the seventies, eighties and 1 in the nineties! She now has 4 precious grand babies.