Hospitals Tap Grandparents to Help Support Breastfeeding

August 19, 2014
By Kristen Holmstrand

Grandmothers in Class
Participants in the Grandmothers Class at Methodist Charlton Medical Center in Dallas, TX, proudly hold their grandbaby mannequins.

The first six weeks of an infant’s life can be challenging for mom and baby, especially for establishing breastfeeding. Support from hospital staff, lactation consultants and the baby’s pediatrician is extremely important, but the strongest key to success for a new mom may be having the support of her family during this time, especially if she is struggling or feeling overwhelmed.

Increasingly, hospitals and OB/GYN practices are including dads in their prenatal and breastfeeding classes. Methodist Charlton Medical Center in Dallas, TX, offers a “Daddy Boot Camp” that prepares new dads for the arrival of their baby, teaches them how to help build a nurturing environment and helps them learn ways to bond with their child, which is particularly helpful when dads are worried that without helping to feed the baby, they won’t be able to develop a close connection. The class is taught by veteran dads, and only fathers are allowed to attend.

But, recognizing the unique and strong influence that a women’s mother and/or mother-in-law can have, a few hospitals across the country are creating classes and outreach specifically for grandmothers. The aim is to garner additional family support for breastfeeding mothers, in alignment with the Ten Steps to Successful Breastfeeding, which are evidence-based practices proven to increase breastfeeding initiation and duration. NICHQ helps many hospitals across the United States in implementing the Ten Steps through projects such as Best Fed Beginnings, the Texas Ten Step Star Achiever Breastfeeding Learning Collaborative and the New York State Breastfeeding Quality Improvement in Hospitals Collaborative.

“Grandmothers not only touch the mom, but they also touch the dad,” explains Reba Godfrey, a lactation consultant at Methodist Charlton Medical Center, a participant in NICHQ’s Texas Ten Step Star Achiever Breastfeeding Collaborative. “It’s important to give grandmothers information about breastfeeding and to share the latest research and science, so they can have a better understanding of why breastfeeding is important and how they can be helpful.”

A year ago, Godfrey came up with the idea of a Grandmothers Class. She developed the content for the class by working with the breastfeeding coordinator at the local Dallas Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Program. The class meets quarterly and is a combination class that includes updates and changes in baby care, infant CPR and choking and breastfeeding. Although the majority of class attendees are first-time grandmothers, some veterans attend, too.

“All grandmothers want to know what’s going on these days. ‘Why did they change that? Why are they telling my daughter/daughter-in-law to do this?’” Godfrey explains. “To have someone sit down with them and explain what the research shows, it helps them so much, it makes them feel a part of everything.”

The response to the new class has been extremely positive. Godfrey loves that at the end of each class, the grandmothers pull out their phones, take selfies of themselves with the baby mannequins and proudly share the photos with their friends.

Bridging a Generation Gap

At the UAB Women and Infants Center in Birmingham, AL, a participant in NICHQ’s Best Fed Beginnings project, fathers, grandmothers and other support people are encouraged to attend breastfeeding classes along with the expecting mothers. Their attendance is included in the class fee. The Center has also created webpages specifically for fathers and grandmothers. The “I Can Help Breastfeeding Guide for Grandmother” particularly addresses the question, “I didn’t breastfeed; Why should she?” to help bridge the gap between grandmothers’ own experiences as new mothers and what we know today. The site explains the benefits of breastfeeding and offers tips for grandmothers about how they can help – from holding the baby while the mother showers or sleeps, to cooking for the new family, to limiting visitors if the new parents are feeling stressed, to offering words of encouragement to the nursing mother.

The UAB Women and Infants Center developed the webpage in response to focus group feedback about how families prefer to have information delivered. Not only do these resources help new mothers get the support they need in the early weeks of breastfeeding, but they also tap into the need for grandmothers to feel useful. 

“When I go into a room with a mom, new baby, dad, siblings running around, and other relatives, I assess the mood and note who could use some extra support or direction,” says Sylvia Edwards, advanced nursing coordinator, Lactation Services, at UAB Women and Infants Center. “Often, I get the grandmother really involved and give her something specific to do, such as helping the mom to place the baby in optimal nursing positions.”

One important piece of advice that Edwards offers to grandmothers: Don’t insist on holding the baby right away (as difficult as that may be). She educates family members on the importance of skin-to-skin contact between mother and baby, and encourages grandmothers to let their daughter or daughter-in-law hold the baby exclusively for the first few hours to promote bonding and breastfeeding.

Viewing the grandmother as a resource for breastfeeding support makes good sense because most grandmothers do know a lot about caring for babies and they want to help. Support programs like those in Birmingham and Dallas recognize the importance of tapping into the wealth of experience and knowledge that grandmothers have. Giving them an opportunity to combine that experience and knowledge with new, evidence-based infant care information can at once allow grandmothers to feel useful and up-to-date on infant care practices. 

Methodist Charlton Medical Center’s Reba Godfrey refers to a sign hanging in her office that sums it up succinctly: “Grandmothers are just moms with a lot of practice.”