Furry animals and fresh newborn friendships are the best kind of friendships. The Human Animal Bond Research Institute reports that pets can help children with emotional expression, social interactions, and alleviating stress. While they can be ridiculously adorable and totally Instagram worthy, it’s important to ensure the safety and comfort of both your human baby and your fur baby. Here’s what you can expect when introducing your newborn to dogs or cats:
Dogs and cats are creatures of habit. Any change to their environment or routine can cause stress. And when a new baby arrives, there’s bound to be plenty of change. Odors like baby oil or diaper bins can overwhelm a pet’s keen sense of smell. A baby’s piercing cries might hurt their sensitive ears. And the demands of a newborn mean you’ll have less time for your pet—which can make them feel left out, sad or stressed. Fortunately, in most cases, pets and new babies can coexist peacefully and safely with a little knowledge, awareness, and planning.
Planning Ahead: How to Prepare a Dog or Cat for Baby
Prepare your pet well in advance of your due date. There’s no such thing as starting too early.
Gradual changes ensure it’s not such a shock when the baby arrives. Here are some tips:
- Address problem behaviors like jumping on people. Simple commands like “sit” and “stay,” and a basic training and manners course for dogs, can help a lot.
- Set up a “safe space” in the home, like a room, section of a room, or crate. Keep all their supplies there. Make it comfortable and fun by offering playtime, attention or treats in this special space. For cats, include a place to hide or climb.
- Create boundaries. If your pet currently spends time in the room that will be a nursery, gradually decrease their access. In addition to your baby’s safety, this will also help prevent your pet from ingesting things they shouldn’t (like baby bottle nipples or toys that could cause an intestinal obstruction).
- Gradually decrease the amount of time you spend with your pet. This is inevitable with a new baby, and a slow change is less stressful than a sudden one.
- Create a daily routine. For example, morning may include breakfast, a walk outside for dogs, or playtime for cats. Alter the time each day (i.e., sometime between 7am-10am for food and attention) so a pet receives the security of knowing what to expect but won’t be stressed if you’re running a little late.
- Introduce new objects, sounds, and smells. The more your pet gets used to the new, the less they’ll need to adjust to once baby comes home. Slowly add new furniture (the crib, swing, etc.), scents (baby oil, etc.), and objects (wear a sling with a doll in it around the home). Consider taking an empty stroller on your walks. Play a recording of baby sounds (on low at first, then gradually increasing the volume) or crawl around like a baby would. Be creative. Offer praise and treats when your pet has a calm or happy response.
- Enlist help from family, friends, or a professional dog walker or cat sitter. Get your pet used to that person as early as possible.
- Seek veterinary care now. Get your pet up to date on vaccinations, and ask your vet about a stool test and parasite prevention (some parasites are transmissible to people, especially children). If your pet is prone to anxiety, make a stress management plan with your vet now. Ask your vet if they have any additional recommendations. Testing cats for a parasitic disease called Toxoplasmosis may be an option, although many ob-gyns recommend testing the mother for antibodies instead, or simply having someone else in the home clean the litter box during pregnancy.
The Big Day is Here…Now What?
- If possible, have someone take an article with the baby’s scent (a hospital blanket, etc.) for your pet to sniff before bringing the baby home.
- Remain calm and happy. Pets pick up on our emotions and might associate your stress or nervousness with the baby.
- Greet your pet normally while someone else holds the baby, to reassure them they’ll still receive your love and attention.
- Have someone exercise your dog so they aren’t overly excited when meeting baby.
- Restrain your pet (use a leash or barrier if necessary) to ensure safety.
- Allow your pet to approach on their own. Never force them.
- If your pet sniffs the baby (even from a distance) while calm and friendly, reward them with praise and treats.
- If your pet shows signs of nervousness or fear, stop the interaction and try again later.
Always prioritize safety. Read your pet’s body language, use common sense, and err on the side of caution. Never allow unsupervised interactions. For aggressive pets, sadly, rehoming may be needed if baby’s safety is at risk. It’s never a bad idea to seek help from a veterinarian or professional dog trainer.
Respecting Animals is Key
Only allow supervised interactions until you’re absolutely positive that your child knows how to interact with a pet—which is usually much later in childhood.
Show what’s acceptable—quiet and calm interactions, gentle petting around the head and shoulders, and allowing the pet to sniff their hand first. Explain what’s unacceptable—pulling, hitting, smacking, scaring, etc.
Also, tell your child never to pet a new animal without asking the pet’s owner if it’s okay.
Teaching Your Pet to be Gentle with Baby
Don’t yell at or punish your pet for warning signs like hissing or growling. This could increase their stress or cause them to bite without a warning next time.
Use positive reinforcement. Offer praise, treats, a special toy, or other reward when your pet behaves appropriately around the baby.
Have realistic expectations. Even well-socialized, friendly pets need an adjustment period to such a big change. But if introductions are handled well, a child and their pet may become best friends in years to come.
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