Grandparents Who Care: When Grands Provide Childcare

By Rebecca Parlakian, Director of Parenting Resources, ZERO TO THREE

My mom watched my newborn son as I made the transition back to work. One day, I handed him off to her for a nap as I got on a conference call. When he woke, I went in to pick him up and found that my mom had put him to sleep on his belly (not on his back, which is the standard safety practice now for babies). When we talked about it, she explained that putting him down on his tummy was just…automatic, what she had done when she was a young mom. Fortunately—the kid, as the expression goes, was all right.

Little did I know that my family was using one of the most common forms of childcare being used today: care by grandparents. The most recent data shows that grandparents in the U.S. care for almost one out of four children under age five on a regular basis! To learn more about grandparents’ experiences as care providers, ZERO TO THREE conducted several focus groups with grandparents in this role. Based on what we heard, we developed a series of resources to support grandparents providing regular childcare. Here is some of what we learned.

Grandparents feel confident about caring for young children

Grandparents feel relaxed and secure in their ability to care for their young grandchildren. Unlike new parents who are struggling to figure out the “best” approaches (pacifier or no pacifier? cloth diapers or disposable?), grandparents have the perspective that comes with seeing their own children grow up well. As Yolanda, a grandmother in one of our groups, told us: “We’re a lot more relaxed. We realize things are going to be OK.”

Conflicts between grandparents and their adult children can be challenging

Grandparents explain how they feel torn at times with balancing their role as parent and grandparent. Grandparents told us that discussing these differences with their children was not easy. Often they felt as though a lifetime of caregiving experience was invisible to their adult children, as one grandmother shared: “My son thinks he’s Dr. Spock!” New parents, on the other hand, need their own parents to respect their caregiving decisions as they take on the role of “parent” themselves. That’s why we developed a tool to help families acknowledge one another’s strengths, explore areas of difficulty, and identify a path forward.

Some grandparents report using spanking to discipline

Several grandparents in our focus groups reflected on changing approaches to limit setting. As one grandmother explained, “It is like, ‘Look. You get these many chances, but you will get your butt spanked if you don’t...’” She went on to say, “The thing is, now, though, ‘Don’t spank your kids because you make them [aggressive].’” Our resource on discipline highlights this important change in setting limits with young children, and explains the latest research on the negative impacts of spanking.

Grandparents are open to learning from their adult children

One of our focus-group participants told us how she learned about the “back to sleep” campaign from her daughter, much like my mom learned from me. This simple shift in sleep practices has led to a demonstrated reduction in Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) over time, and grandparents tell us they are open to learning new techniques that keep their precious little ones safe.

Lots of good stuff has stayed the same

The good news for grandparents is that there are many loving caregiving practices that have stood the test of time—like outdoor play. Grandparents also talked about the magic of sharing songs and stories with their young grandchildren. Cecelia remembers “teaching [my grandson] a song; one time, singing a song to him: This old man, he played one... knick-knack paddy whack, and the next thing you know, he’s singing it himself… It just melts my heart.”

Grandparents tell us one of the most powerful parts of caring for grandchildren is the memories it evokes of being parents themselves. Explains Carl, a grandfather in our focus groups, “I have a picture of when my daughter was little, and she was holding my hand. We were walking together. My daughter took a picture of me and [my two-year-old grandson] doing the same thing.”

The one thing all grandparents and parents share?

Hope for their grandchild’s future was mentioned again and again as a source of great joy to grandparent caregivers (and, I can vouch, parents too!). Pat, one of our focus-group participants, said it best: “To me, [I hope they achieve] whatever they set their minds to do…just to work and live [with] integrity, to be honest, to be truthful, to treat people right, and to do whatever their hearts desire.”

To learn more about the needs of grandparents who provide childcare, visit:



ZERO TO THREE works to ensure all babies and toddlers benefit from the family and community connections critical to their well-being and development. Since 1977, the organization has advanced the proven power of nurturing relationships by transforming the science of early childhood into helpful resources, practical tools and responsive policies for millions of parents, professionals and policymakers.