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Millennials vs. Boomers on the Care of Newborns

Is there anything about infant-care that hasn’t changed?

Key points

  • New grandparents can be intimidated by the many changes in infant care since their own children were born.
  • What you might expect to be an easy way to connect with your child's becoming a parent can instead be a source of conflict.
  • Follow the new rules; don't expect to be the expert; under the new approach is the same wish to do the best for the new arrival.
Elizabeth Roper Marcus
Me feeding Zoe
Source: Elizabeth Roper Marcus

When my daughter Zoe came to visit with 5 month-old Zach, my first grandchild, we looked together through the photo album I’d made of her first year. In it, we found a picture of me feeding her in the very same rocker in which she liked to sit feeding her baby. Nothing had changed. And yet, at the same time, it seemed that almost everything about childcare is different. I remember young parenting as so much easier, simpler. Zoe was armed against dangers my generation never imagined.

In the delivery room, right from the start, Zach was fitted with an ankle cuff to guard against kidnapping. The cuff had to be double-checked and removed before his parents could take him home, just like the security buttons on expensive clothing and electronics. And he couldn’t leave the hospital without a car seat of specified construction, a thick, heavy, plastic shell padded like the protective crash seat it is meant to be. Forty years earlier, we’d carried Zoe out—and home—in our arms.

Zach’s car seat snapped into a stroller of impressive construction. When Zoe was an infant and no longer traveling in the papoose I wore on my chest, she rode in a fabric sling attached to a light metal frame, an “umbrella stroller” that could collapse and hang from my arm. When our son arrived, I got a double-wide version in which I blithely pushed my toddlers off the curb and into the street without a second thought. It never occurred to me that the cars wouldn’t stop for us.

Elizabeth Roper Marcus
Zoe in umbrella stroller
Source: Elizabeth Roper Marcus

Were we naive? Foolhardy?

Of course, like all mothers today, Zoe never put Zach to sleep face down, as I did her, because we now know that to do so risks SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome). As a result, since Zach couldn’t practice pushing up from his crib, he had daily “tummy time”—which he hated—to build his arm muscles and wore a special cap to keep his skull from flattening because he was always on his back.

On a form provided by the pediatrician, Zoe tracked Zach’s growth, recording everything he took in—and put out. She and her husband followed instructions to time each feeding carefully, getting up to wake the baby for his midnight feed. They “sleep-trained,” helping Zach to “self-soothe” and to regulate his sleep pattern. Bottles of hand sanitizer were scattered about to use before picking him up. Zach’s swim clothes, floaties, and little beach tent were UV protected, even his tiny water booties. He slept under his crib’s mosquito netting. Our styles of infant care could not have been more different.

Are parents now too alarmist?

Pediatricians I’ve spoken to tell me such protective vigilance is a recent phenomenon and has several explanations. It’s attributed to the wide availability of the latest research on the internet, to the market’s response to the new data, and to the sense of living in an increasingly dangerous world. But I worry about all the anxiety it must arouse, about the pressure it puts on young parents and indirectly on the children.

In my mind’s eye, we were so carefree. With our flowing hair, in our tie-dyed bellbottoms, we pursued the natural. We fed on demand and accommodated our babies’ sleep patterns. We followed where our babies led.

But, if truth be told, looking harder into the photos in Zoe’s baby book, I can see the anxiety behind my smile. A baby’s vulnerability and complete dependence are alarming. My generation became parents when psychologists were delving into cognitive development and studying issues like the importance of gender equality and the value of play. We read the new books and carefully followed the authors’ advice. We stimulated our babies' little minds, dressed our girls in overalls, and gave our sons dolls instead of guns. We believed that if you did everything right you could raise happy, mentally healthy children equipped to fulfill their potential. Ours was a new and improved version of parenting. But so much hung on our enlightened approach, it was overwhelming—and frightening. We could so easily fail.

New parents of newborns are as fledgling as their charges, feeling most clueless when their infants are at their most helpless. We hold to what the experts prescribe as to a lifeline. The advice is new and well-founded. But some things never do change: the wish to be the best parents we can, the deep fear, the indescribable joy.