Choosing Grandparents for Your Childcare Needs

Each working day, more than 5 million grandparents in the United States provide childcare to their grandchildren. Although most of these child-care arrangements work out well for all concerned, not every grandparent-grandchild child-care arrangement is necessarily made in heaven. Here's what you need to know to tilt the roulette wheel in your favor.

Why grandparents can make terrible — or terrific — child-care providers

Grandparents can make either terrible or terrific child-care providers, depending on the circumstances. If they're in good health and genuinely interested in providing childcare to their grandchildren, the results can be truly magical. If, however, they're in poor health but feel forced to provide childcare to their grandchildren because their children seem to have few other options, the results can be nothing short of disastrous.

You can easily trick yourself into believing that your parents are as young and vital as they were during your own growing-up years. However, you need to look at your parents realistically and be honest with yourself — and them — in deciding whether they're up to the challenge. You won't be doing anyone a favor — not yourself, not them, and certainly not your child — if you allow them to take on a responsibility that's simply too much for them to cope with at this point in their lives.

That was then, this is now

Although many grandparents do an admirable job of bringing themselves up to speed on current safety practices, some seem to get stuck in a bit of a time warp, stubbornly sticking with whatever practices were in vogue when they were raising their own kids a generation earlier.

Obviously, this attitude can pose a major problem if you're planning to leave your child in your parents' care while you go to work. You won't have much luck focusing on your work if you're constantly worrying about whether your father-in-law is using your baby's car seat properly (or even at all!).

Here are some tips on getting older relatives on board about safety:

  • Give your parents and/or your in-laws a crash course on the art and science of modern-day parenting. In some communities, you can sign up for workshops designed to teach grandparents everything they need to know about the current thinking on child development, child health, and child safety.
    If you can't find any such courses in your community, you may want to print out a copy of A Grandparents' Guide for Family Nurturing & Safety. The booklet, written by pediatrician and author T. Berry Brazelton and Consumer Product Safety Commission Chairman Ann Brown, contains tips on childproofing your house for your grandchildren and using safe sleep practices when putting babies in bed to sleep. If you prefer a free hard copy of the booklet, then request Item 606E from the Consumer Information Center, Pueblo, CO 81009.
  • Make sure that your parents and in-laws follow your instructions about child safety. A study conducted by Nissan North America, Inc., found that 12 percent of grandparents admit that they don't use child safety seats for children age 6 and under who are traveling in their cars.
    And, speaking of car seats, make sure that your parents and in-laws know how to use and install your child's car seat: A study conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that up to 80 percent of child safety seats are either improperly installed or incorrectly used. Your parents and in-laws should carefully review the installation instructions in the manual that came with the car seat as well as the owner's manual for their vehicle.
    You also may want to direct your child's grandparents to the following two resources:

• American Academy of Pediatrics: Car Safety Seats: A Guide for Families

• National Safe Kids Campaign: Safety Seat Guide

  • Don't be afraid to take a hard line when it comes to your child's safety. This is a situation where there simply isn't any room to compromise. If your in-laws won't childproof their home to your standards, you may have to insist that they take care of your child in your home rather than their own.

On a related note, watch out for grandma's purse or grandpa's bag. A study conducted by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Poison Information Center at the Children's Hospital in Birmingham, Alabama, revealed that 36 percent of childhood poisonings with prescription drugs involved a grandparent's medication. The researchers found that grandparents often store medications in containers that are not child-resistant and that these containers are often left on tables, on kitchen counters, or in purses — all within easy reach of a young child.

Too blue to care carefully

A recent study found that 20 percent of grandparents who are responsible for caring for young children 30 or more hours a week meet the criteria for clinical depression. You should at least consider the possibility that your family member may be becoming depressed if you notice one or more of the following symptoms of depression:

  • Persistent sad, anxious, or "flat" mood
  • Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, and helplessness
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities that were once enjoyed, including spending time with the grandchildren
  • Decreased energy or fatigue
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions
  • Insomnia, early-morning awakening, or oversleeping
  • Appetite and/or weight loss or overeating and weight gain
  • Thoughts of death or suicide
  • Suicide attempts
  • Restlessness and irritability
  • Persistent physical symptoms that do not respond to treatment, such as headaches, digestive disorders, and chronic pain

Obviously, if your relative is depressed, you will need to make alternate child-care arrangements.

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