For many parents, our pet is our first baby, and bringing our new baby home is akin to bringing a sibling home. Will your pet be jealous of all the attention? Will you inadvertently neglect your pet with the arrival of the new baby? Will they get along?
The good news is that pets are great for children, and studies have shown that children with pets have less allergies and better immunity. The integration of your new family member with your existing family is an important step in the future development of the bond between your pet and your baby.
When should I start?
This integration should not be something that you attempt the day before the baby comes home. It is a process that should start long before there is even a cot in the nursery. You have to consider how your pet’s lifestyle is going to change. Will your dog’s daily walk routine change? Is the pet’s food bowl on the floor in a central area where a crawling toddler might later have access to it? Are sleeping arrangements going to change? Will your pet still be allowed to jump on the couch or your lap? Is the future nursery currently your pet’s favourite hiding spot?
Discuss with your partner how your pet’s life is going to change well in advance of these changes becoming necessary, so these can be implemented over a period of time. It won’t serve your pet and your baby’s relationship well if your dog currently sleeps on your bed, is walked twice a day, eats in the dining room and has his own toy room, and suddenly baby comes home and he is walked on the weekends, eats and sleeps outside, and all the slobbery, dirty toys are thrown away the same day. You don’t want your pet associating these changes with the arrival of the new family member. Transitioning your pet into his or her new lifestyle well before your baby comes home will separate the events and he will look at the arrival of the baby as a totally different occasion.
Both dogs and cats naturally develop a “pecking order” and prior to your baby arriving your pet would have understood that you and your partner are at the top. Your dog needs to learn that baby will sit above him or her in the pecking order, for example making your dog wait for you and baby to enter the house or car. Establishing boundaries such as the physical boundaries (like the areas they are and are not allowed to go in the house, putting up child barricades to block the areas that the dog is not allowed in) help in the development of the pecking order. Child barricades also allow your dog to see the baby and watch from a distance while they are still becoming acquainted.
Will your dog’s walks be limited to late in the day, or early morning after the baby’s morning feed, or just on weekends, or only when your partner gets home from work? Try to implement this change gradually over time leading up to the arrival of the new baby. Baby’s love going for walks in their pram, so maybe start walking the dog with the pram before baby comes home. It will give you an idea of how easy (or difficult) it is going to be to manage the pram and the dog together, and will also have your dog accustomed to walking next to (and not under) the wheels of the pram. Remember to establish a routine that you think you can stick to. If baby is crying, a walk in the pram might be just what he or she needs so that needn’t be a reason to not take the dog for a walk, but the walk might be shorter if baby doesn’t settle, so vary the route you take.
Is your dog’s sleeping area going to change? Or will they be confined to certain areas of the house? Is the nursery going to be out of bounds? Then put the new boundaries in early, so not only is the dog used to their new sleeping space and permitted areas, but you are not left with a waking baby and a restless dog your first night at home.
Where your pet eats needs to be considered, not only from the perspective of a newborn baby, but also of a crawling, walking and climbing toddler. Make sure the pet bowl is out of reach; you don’t want your toddler snacking on dog treats or drinking your pet’s water, and you don’t want your pet feeling like someone is trying to steal their food. When your baby is still a bundle in your arms it will be easy to establish a feeding routine that occurs when your baby is not around, and in an area away from him or her, but as your baby becomes a toddler they will want to help, come with you or feed the dog themselves. It is important to establish a safe environment for your dog to eat, and to teach your little one to respect your dog and stay away to allow the dog to eat.
If your pet is used to having whatever ball, squeaky toy or cuddly teddy laying around, then you could have toy wars on your hands in the future. It might be time to teach your dog or cat what toys are really his or hers, and which toys are not. Establish a toy box for your pet but also an alternative with baby toys, so they learn that any toy in the pet toy box is for the taking but the other toy box is out of bounds. Just a warning, you might want to start this learning process with some baby toys you are prepared to lose as your pet learns the difference, and remember to offer treats and rewards when your pet has a look in the baby box but doesn’t take.
Remember also, that when your baby becomes an active, dog-or-cat-loving toddler, he or she is going to want to share toys with your pet so you can’t always assume when Fido is chewing baby’s new teething ring that he stole it from the wrong box.
So you have finally taught your pet the new routine for walks, he is happy in his new bed in the laundry, he understands the room at the end of the hall is out of bounds, he enjoys his food from a bowl outside or in a separate room, and as much as he wants to play with the Kermit in the big toy box he knows he’s not allowed. The next step is integrating with your actual baby.
When your baby is born, your pet will be very curious as to who this little being is that is taking all of your attention. While you are in hospital it is a good idea to wrap baby in a blanket that you can send home with family for your pet to smell. Have outfits that baby has worn in hospital go home to leave some scent around the house, in the bathroom, in the lounge area, and anywhere your pet and your baby might co-exist. Let your pet really investigate this new scent. If you have baby powders or creams that you plan to use with your baby, you can rub them on your own skin before the arrival of your little one so your pet becomes accustomed to these smells as well.
Bringing your baby home
Remember when you and your baby come home, your dog will be very excited to see you first and foremost. If possible have someone take your dog for a big walk or play ball in the back yard before your arrival to try and expel some of their energy. Make sure the dog is calm before you reunite (obviously this might change on knowing you are home at last).
Your first meeting with your dog after this time apart is a good opportunity to establish the pecking order – yes, you are very excited to see your dog, but your dog needs to see and learn to understand that before you give him or her attention, you are going to make sure your baby is safe by handing baby over to your partner or putting baby in the cot. When it is time for the two to meet, allow your dog to sniff the blankets (or even close to the baby if the dog is calm and does not pose a threat). Reward your dog with lots of cuddles, pats or treats for behaving around the baby. If at any time your dog snarls, growls, or bears teeth this is a behavioural issue that needs the advice of a professional.
Once your baby and fur-baby have been acquainted make sure you have some play time with both – walks to the park with baby in the pram, throwing ball in the backyard with baby on your lap, and cuddles together. All of this will help reinforce the bond between your pet and your child.
It’s not a one-way street
As well as your pet learning to accept and respect your baby, the reverse needs to occur and your child needs to understand boundaries and respect your pet. Teach your child to be gentle, not to pull tails and ears or poke eyes, put fingers in your pet’s mouth, pull hair or cause discomfort.
Always supervise your child and pet together and teach your child safe and proper ways to play with cats and dogs. They will become best friends before you know it.
There are also books available, some of which come with a CD of baby noises to familiarise your pet with the new sounds.If you have any questions or concerns speak to your paediatrician or your veterinarian.