A member of the state school board, Cindy Davis was on a Zoom meeting when her adult daughter Katie burst into the room with life-changing news.

“She walks in and she looks at me and her eyes looked like a deer in the headlights. She said, ‘I am pregnant and there are two of them.’ ”

Davis fumbled with the video and mute buttons to duck out of the board meeting to give her daughter her full attention and “the biggest hug,” she said.

“It was a sweet moment but she was so overwhelmed having just come from the doctor and finding out there were two that she had to talk to someone. She was not able to wait for the big reveal and all of that. I mean she just needed to talk to someone right then,” said Davis.

From that moment on, the family’s attention has been consumed with granddaughters Indy and Oakley, from their births, newborn intensive care unit stays and finally, playing a role in their care once they were released from the hospital.

Unrivaled love, joy

Becoming a grandmother for the first time has stirred a lot of thoughts and emotions, Davis said.

“The second these babies were born I fell in love. It’s just so stunning,” she said.

“Something that I actually was unprepared for was how tender my feelings would be when I saw my own daughter with her daughters, consoling them, talking to them.”

Davis said her role as Katie’s mom continues to evolve as her daughter has become a mother, too.

“I think it’s hard as a parent because you don’t stop parenting just because your kids become parents. But you have to try to parent so differently, and you are in a support role,” she said.

She doesn’t want to be a backseat driver “but sometimes they still need and want someone to ride shotgun,” Davis said.

Cindy Davis walks through her backyard with her 9-week-old granddaughter Indy while babysitting her at home in Cedar Hills on Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2023. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Stay in your lane

Christina Pay, Utah State University Extension assistant professor of family and consumer sciences, it is critically important that first-time grandparents respect boundaries and communicate with their grandkids’ parents. Depending upon the age of the child, it helps to have a mutual understanding of the parents’ preferred limits on screen time, sleep schedules or what they want their kids to eat.

Pay’s 2-year-old granddaughter loves to watch “Bluey,” an Australian animated preschool television series, but her parents have strict limits on TV time.

“So I make sure that I ask them ‘OK, how many episodes of “Bluey” can we watch together?’ and I try to stick with those boundaries,” she said.

But it’s hard sometimes when her granddaughter asks her to watch another episode or wants to push boundaries some other way.

“I’ll be really honest, it’s hard to say ‘no,’ with those cute little eyes looking at you. But we really have to honor the parenting of the grandchild’s parents as hard as it is,” she said.

When grandparents undermine parents’ wishes it can fester resentment and grandparents can run the risk of “maybe not letting you be with a child as often if you’re not going to follow their rules for the child. Boundaries are really worth thinking about so that you can keep that relationship strong and healthy,” Pay said.

Benefits abound

The unique grandchild-grandparent relationship benefits both parties, said Pay. Grandparents can provide their grandkids unconditional love and acceptance while interacting with their grandchildren can help boost their physical and mental health.

“The benefit of that, of course, is to help the child feel safe and secure. The benefits go both ways. The research shows that grandparents can have happier and longer lives being involved in the lives of their grandchildren,” Pay said.

How grandparents fit into grandchildren’s lives: American Family Survey

Grandparents can also help pass on family culture, tradition and history.

“Children love to hear stories about their families, about their grandparents. It helps them connect to their family, which again, research shows it’s really important for those children to feel that connection is part of building those protective factors so they know where they came from, to feel that connection with their family,” she said.

Many grandparents are also child care providers to their grandchildren, with one survey indicating that 1 in 4 children under the age of 5 are cared for by their grandparents, Pay said.

That could mean they are the child’s full-time caregiver, they drop off or pick them up from school or they watch them occasionally so their parents can enjoy a night out.

Cindy Davis holds her 9-week-old granddaughter Indy while babysitting her at home in Cedar Hills on Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2023. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Health and safety

Dr. Peter Lindgren, pediatrician with Intermountain Health, said babies’ early interactions with grandparents are important.

“There’s some real biology there in terms of how we bond together to take care of this person and I think that’s really a big deal,” Lindgren said.

Lindgren said a grandparents’ support is important, too, to help new moms who are likely sleep deprived, recovering from childbirth and learning as they go how to care for and comfort their baby.

“One thing that we all go through is, you get a lot of advice from people about how to do it. I always tell new parents, ‘Don’t listen to anybody’s advice. Listen to the baby,’ ” he said.

If the baby’s parents ask for advice, “it’s a great time to give your point of view. But first and foremost, you can provide foundational support,” he said.

Feeling that support is especially critical for mothers who experience postpartum depression, he said.

Lindgren said there are host of other safety recommendations that have evolved as medical science has learned more about sleep positions, babies’ immunity and the appropriate use of car seats.

Babies younger than 1 year old should be placed on their backs to sleep — never on their stomachs or on their sides. Sleeping on the stomach or side increases the risk for sudden infant death syndrome, according to guidance from Intermountain Health.

“We’ve known for quite some time now that babies are safer sleeping on their backs, not having a lot of things around them and sleeping on a relatively firm surface and not being overly bundled. That certainly decreases the risk of SIDS,” Lindgren said.

Babies sleeping in the same room as adults, typically their parents, lowers the risk of SIDS, too, Lindgren said.

“Moms and babies have this really interesting synchrony with sleep. When they sleep near each other, their sleep cycles go together and so as babies start to wake up, mothers start to wake up. That really helps with breastfeeding,” he said.

Grandparents who transport their grandchildren in their vehicles need to ensure the infant seats are properly installed in the back seat of their vehicles.

Primary Children’s Hospital offers free in person or virtual car seat check each weekday. Call 801-662-6583 to make an appointment.

Cindy Davis poses for a photo with her twin 9-week-old granddaughters Indy and Oakley while babysitting them at her home in Cedar Hills on Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2023. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Saving for college

Richard Ellis, executive director of Utah’s My529 education saving plan and former Utah state treasurer, said the birth of a grandchild is a perfect time for grandparents to invest in their future.

“I’m in grandparent mode and I have 16 grandkids and 16 accounts I contribute to” which he opened as soon as each grandchild received their Social Security number, he said.

Not only does Ellis receive state income tax credits for opening and contributing to accounts for each of his grandchildren, the savings will be somewhat of a hedge against rising college costs, which in recent years have outstripped inflation.

Each Christmas, Ellis prepares a certificate for each grandchild to reflect how much has accumulated in the respective accounts over the year, which doesn’t mean a lot to the younger grandchildren. But the older grandkids, ages 12 and 11, “they look at it now and say, ‘Oh, yeah, this is a lot of money.’ So to them, it’s becoming meaningful,” Ellis said.

Ellis advises that grandparents contribute early, whether they open accounts for their grandchildren or contribute to an 529 education savings account established by the child’s parents, although grandparents’ contributions to an account opened by the child’s parents are not eligible for the state tax credit.

Children will receive a wide variety of other gifts during their childhood but an educational savings plan can have lifelong benefits whether the grandchild chooses the traditional college route or attends a technical college.

“Post secondary education is so important to get those skills for a job to go out and be able to support yourself and your family,” he said.

But again, for the maximum benefit, grandparents (and parents) should start saving early, Ellis advises.

“It’s just the compounding that comes from early contributions that make the difference,” he said.

Taking things too far

USU Extension’s Pay said it is only natural that grandparents take great joy in the birth of their first grandchild. The hope is that over time, the child will be surrounded by people who love them, advocate for them and pass down their family’s culture, traditions and stories.

“Studies show that children who grow up with greater emotional ties and closeness to their grandparents, they’re less likely to be depressed as adults and have less anxiety. The research is ongoing, but there’s so much out there that’s telling us how necessary it is to have grandparents in the lives of these children,” Pay said.

But paternal and maternal grandparents need to guard against competing for favor with lavish gifts, expensive outings or monopolizing grandparent time.

“That can be very toxic. Again, as hard as it might be, it’s best if grandparents tread very carefully,” Pay said.

Cindy Davis and her mother Camie Bishop Calaway sit together in Davis’ yard while babysitting 9-week-old twins Indy and Oakley, who are Davis’ granddaughters and Calaway’s great-granddaughters, in Cedar Hills on Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2023. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

A look to the future

Davis said the birth of her twin granddaughters caused to reflect on her responsibilities as a policymaker and why the strength and support of Utah’s public schools matter even more, which is saying something for someone who has spent her entire career as an educator and now an elected member of the Utah State Board of Education.

“Having newborns in the house just reminds you all over again, why we do what we do. You look at these babies and you want all things good for them. Great schools can open wonderful doors in the future for kids and provide opportunities for learning and growth. Really, it’s a launchpad for life,” she said.