How to introduce a pet to your new child (and vice versa)
For many of us, our first babies are furry and lick a lot. Then the real babies arrive. Suddenly Fido is expected to take a back seat to this creature that isn't even potty trained yet. Harrumph!
Or maybe you have a baby, but the family is just not complete without a cuddly four-legged brother or sister. Either situation can be stressful for all involved, but taking the time to prepare the house and the babies, both the four- and two-legged variety, can take some of the worry out of these transitions and new additions.
If you already have a pet and are expecting a baby, start getting your dog or cat used to some of these changes early. If for example, says Emily Amarosa, OBGYN with Harbour Women's Health in Portsmouth, the mom-to-be is the primary caretaker of the family pet or has a particularly strong bond with the pet, start getting the dog or cat used to a secondary caregiver. Get the dog used to someone else, whether it's a partner, older child, hired dog walker, walking and feeding him or her in the months and weeks leading up to baby, so that when baby gets home and mom and/or dad are both very busy with the baby, it's not such a big transition.
This is also a good time to address any lingering behavior issues with a dog or cat, according to The Humane Society of the United States. This is particularly true of dogs who may be used to jumping up on folks when they come in the door or enter the room or ones that jump up next to his or master on the couch for a snuggle. The Humane Society recommends getting the dog used to being invited up onto the couch or in for a kiss or cuddle. This can save some trouble later on when mom or dad is holding the new baby.
The Humane Society also suggests inviting friends with babies over before the new baby is born. That way you can not only get the pet used to being around children, but you can also see how the pet will react. This advice is offered of course with the caveat that the children and pets are supervised at all times.
It's also a good idea according to the Humane Society for the parents to start using baby lotions and oil to get the pet used to the new smells. Further, play recordings of babies crying, turn on baby swings and use the rocking chair, so these new sounds become commonplace. The Humane Society also recommends making these positive experiences by giving the dog or cat a treat when he or she behaves properly when they occur.
Once the baby is born, Amarosa says to have a family member or friend bring the baby's first hat – the one they usually put on right after the birth -- a onesie, or a blanket, to the dog or cat so they can acclimate to the baby's smell.
Further, adds Tricia L. Goff, pediatrician with Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, "The family should ensure that the pet gets its normal amount of attention and maintains its normal routines once the baby comes home. For animals with temperaments that will work well with children, there may be no need for separation or any special precautions, but others may need a much more structured approach."
But even with all this preparation, you have to expect a period of adjustment. That said, if you can make it through it, it may be worth it.
"I think having a pet around a child from the time they are newborn can make for a long and strong bond between the two," Goff said. "This is absolutely a benefit both to the child and the animal."
As for adding a pet into the mix with a new baby, that may be a different story.
"If you are getting a puppy, kitten, etc., they will need quite a bit of attention, so you should not have this coincide with bringing a new baby home or any other more chaotic time in your household," Goff said. "When children are old enough to help with chores for the pet, this may be a good time to bring a new addition into the home. This timing may be different for each child.”
When everyone is ready to add a furry friend to the mix, it's best, Goff said, to keep in mind that very young children don’t always have the ability to follow the instructions regarding animal safety. When it comes to older kids, Goff recommends teaching your child to avoid disturbing a sleeping dog or one that is eating. In addition, you should teach them how to respond if it seems that a dog is acting aggressively.
"For example," Goff said. "They should back slowly away rather than running away because a dog may think the child is playing if they are running."
Another thing to keep in mind with a new or existing pet is the development of allergies.
"Some parents will question whether having a dog or cat in the home prior to bringing a newborn home is a good idea because it may reduce the risk of environmental allergies," Goff said. "(But) there is no convincing evidence that this is the case, so clinicians are advised against making such recommendations."
She adds that if a family already has an animal and then later thinks the child is showing signs of significant allergies, it would be best to get allergy testing specifically to that type of animal to determine if the child is reacting to it.
Melanie Plenda is a full-time freelance journalist and mother living in Keene.