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Grandparenting from the Start: Nurturing “Grand” Relationships from Birth

grandfather holding grandson playing and laughing

The grandparents in your life may live close by or across the country. They may love babies, or love babies but still refuse to change diapers. No matter the situation, we have ideas for how you can nurture grandparent-grandbaby relationships in the early years and beyond.

Use technology to build relationships across the miles. Video-chatting, using applications like Skype or Face-Time, is a great way to help young children begin to connect with grandparents and other family members who don’t live close by. Babies and toddlers come to recognize the voices and faces of the people on the screen—which can kick off their relationship and help ease shyness during their first in-person visits. Better yet, the American Academy of Pediatrics has said that video-chatting is an exception from “screen-time” limits, according to their new media use recommendations for children.

Set grandparents and grandchildren up for success during visits. Try to schedule the visit during the morning, a time when most babies are awake, alert, and ready to play. Pull out some of your child’s favorite toys and books. If your child is a little slow-to-warm up, begin playing together as a group and slowly phase yourself out as your baby becomes more comfortable. For toddlers, try to ensure that the environment is as child-safe as possible so grandparents can focus on fun, rather than “no touching” or “be careful.”

If needed, help grandparents understand your child’s needs. Grandparents may have forgotten that babies only interact for short periods of time, or that toddlers see a bookshelf and think “LADDER!” One technique that can be helpful is to use the “baby’s voice” to share a suggestion. That way it’s not you telling grandparents what to do, it’s the baby: “Grammy, I love to climb at the playground and this bookshelf looks like steps. Maybe if you roll a car over my way or show me a story, it’ll help to distract me. Or maybe we can play in the other room?”

Find an activity or interest that grandparent and grandchild can share. My mother-in-law loves being a grandma, but she wasn’t much for sitting on the floor and playing. We discovered that local community-run toddler art-and-music classes provided the perfect structured (and short) outings. Later, she found that taking my preschoolers to the movies was another great activity—the kids were engaged and they could have fun together. (And—my husband and I got 2 hours alone, a win!)

Give them time to find their way. Grandparents will have their own approaches to caregiving that may be different from ours. While it’s tempting to coach from the sidelines (“Hey Mom, the baby likes it better when you hold her over your shoulder…”), sometimes it’s best to let the relationship evolve in its own way. Babies and young children can handle different approaches to care when they feel safe and loved. (More on sharing the care, here.) Because of distance, my kids only saw my parents a few times a year but when we visited, they got to sleep with Grammy and Grampy. While co-sleeping wasn’t a choice I had made at home, letting this become a special part of their time with my parents has given them lasting and cherished memories of whispered stories and night-time cuddles.

Finally, be patient. Sometimes these relationships don’t form right away. My dad, while he loved my kids, wasn’t particularly involved with them as young children. Now that my son is 12, though, the two of them are thick as thieves. In our last visit, my father taught Ben how to chop firewood (I know! I was worried too! But everyone finished with all fingers intact!). Together, they kept the woodstove going in the house. My son felt proud to be trusted with such important tasks (especially ones that involved an axe), and my father was thrilled to have a partner in work he usually did alone.

The connection between grandchild and grandparent can be a special, distinct, and incredibly powerful relationship in a child’s life. Supporting this developing bond, beginning in the early years, plants the seed for many years of shared memories. What an important way to give children both “roots and wings.”


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