Bringing home baby: Preparing pets for parenthood

The arrival of a baby is a highly anticipated, exciting, overwhelming, and joyous event. With all the thought and preparation that goes into setting up the home and nursery, the regular pregnancy check ups and dealing with all the symptoms of pregnancy itself (hello morning sickness, hormones, tiredness, aches and pains etc), many expectant parents forget their pets may need help adjusting to the imminent changes.

Recovering from the birth, whether natural or cesarean, can take up to 6 weeks or more. Coupled with the sleep deprivation and exhaustion that comes hand in hand with caring for a newborn (feeding, changing, burping, settling, bathing etc), finding the time and patience to deal with behaviour problems in your pets can be difficult. Indeed, this is often when I get a call from distraught parents whose pet's behaviour has severely deteriorated.
                                 
The good news is that a little preparation and know how can help reduce the likelihood you’ll encounter problems with your pet once your baby comes home. 


(Photo: source)

Bringing home baby can affect pets differently


Having a baby brings with it significant changes to your life and your routine will change to accommodate and care for your new little bundle. Pets will be affected by these changes in different ways, depending on their personality and temperament, past experiences and the degree to which their routine changes once the baby arrives. For example, if your dog is timid and a little fearful in general and in unfamiliar situations, it's probably more likely to find a baby a bit scary at first. Whereas if your dog is generally calm and relaxed and not phased by novelty then you may find they adjust very well to sharing their home with your new little person.

Archie checking out Nate and his toy
This was evident in my own dogs when our first baby came home from hospital. Our nine year old boxer, Archie, was very curious and interested yet quite anxious about Nathan, whereas our eight year old Labrador, Joseph, was very nonchalant. This surprised me. Although neither dog had any prior experience with babies, I had expected Archie would be fascinated and attentive to our little one but this was not the case. Archie didn’t cope very well not having the same level of attention and interaction he normally received from me. I continued to work on teaching him to associate little Nathan with lots of positive experiences and was making good progress. Sadly, after several weeks we discovered Archie had advanced lymphoma. He died peacefully at home when Nate was just four months old.

Joseph remains unfazed by Nate, now 16 months old, and is most interested in him when he’s eating (Nate drops a lot of food) – typical Lab!. When our second baby, Zachary, arrived last month it was as if Joe barely noticed. He remains his usual laid back self and we have maintained his normal routine as much as possible.


Joe knows to stay on his bed until Nate has finished eating

The experiences your pet has with your baby, good and bad, will also influence how they cope. Being mindful to ensure their interactions are positive will help their relationship get off to the right start. We continue to build a positive association between Joseph and the boys by including Joe in family life, going on regular walks together and rewarding Joe's good behaviour with his favourite thing - FOOD!

My tips for success


My own experiences introducing our two dogs to our babies reinforced to me that preparation really is the key to success.

Here is a general list of some of the things you can do to help your pet adjust to life with a newborn. Ideally, many of these changes should be made well before the baby arrives to allow your pet time to become accustomed to them: 

  • Introduce nursery furniture and other baby-related items (e.g. bouncer, play gym, pram etc) as early as possible and pair them with high value treats for calm and compliant behaviour. This helps to create a positive association with the new items. 
  • Use baby gates to section off any areas of the home you don't want your pet to access once baby is home.
  • Ensure your pet is compliant and well behaved and, if not, address any behaviour issues with the help of a reputable trainer or behaviourist. 
  • Take your pet to the vet for a check up. If your vet identifies a health problem, it can be treated and, hopefully, alleviated prior to baby coming home.
  • Teach your dog to be comfortable walking next to the pram. Walking your dog with the baby is a great way to create a positive association with bubs for your dog. Teaching your dog to stay on a mat or bed is another very useful behaviour which allows your dog to be near you without getting under your feet.
  • If your pet usually sleeps on your bed and you plan to feed your baby in bed, you may not want your pet to sleep there once your baby arrives. If this is the case, teach your pet to sleep elsewhere, such as on their own bed on the floor.
  • Play sounds of babies cooing and crying and pair with high value treats for calm and compliant behaviour. This will help to create a positive association with these sounds and reduce the chance of your pet fearing your new baby.
  • Try to implement any changes to your pet’s routine prior to the baby arriving. For example, if you plan to feed and walk them at different times once baby comes home, begin doing so well beforehand if possible.
  • Once your baby is born, have your partner or a family member bring home a blanket with your baby's scent on it. Let your pet smell the blanket and pair with praise, pats and high value treat. Everything baby should be wonderful for your pet!
  • Provide your pet with a quiet, safe place they can retreat to. A crying baby can stress pets out too! For dogs, access to another room with a comfy bed or the outdoors on sunny days is ideal. For cats confined to the house, cat towers or shelving with a bed or enclosed pod provide a place they can escape to if they feel unsure. Access to outdoor space via a cat park or enclosure can also help reduce stress.

The introduction


Pets can easily become overwhelmed with the excitement of their owner coming home from the hospital so introducing your pet to your baby should be done as calmly and quietly as possible. Waiting until your pet is calm and your baby is fed and sleeping is ideal. Sitting down and holding your baby while your partner brings your dog into the room on a lead is a good option for calm and obedient dogs. For more excitable dogs, a baby gate separating them from you and your baby adds an extra element of safety.

Use verbal praise, pats and favourite treats to reward calm and compliant behaviour in the presence of the baby. This should continue on a daily basis and in different situations (e.g. when baby is crying, in a carrier, in the pram, in the bassinet, being changed, being fed etc) and will help your pet learn to associate the baby, and being calm and compliant when in their presence, with lots of positive experiences. Begin with short training sessions (a minute or two) and gradually increase the duration if your pet is coping well. Begin to allow your pet to spend more time near your baby (under supervision) and include them in daily activities once you can see they're calm and comfortable in the presence of the baby.

From newborn to infant to toddler and beyond


Archie enjoying gentle pats
As your baby grows and develops they will become more mobile and curious about your pet. Babies and young children like to grab and touch with their hands and get their face up close to things that interest them. This makes most pets very uncomfortable. Children are poor at reading and responding to the early warning signs (avoidance, wide eyes, lip licking, yawning etc). Indeed, statistics show that incidents of dog bites most often occur in the home environment and involve children and dogs that are known to them. Pets and children should ALWAYS be supervised when together, no matter how much you trust your pet. If they can’t be supervised, they must be safely separated.

Seeking assistance from a reputable trainer or behaviourist to assess your pet and help you prepare them for the arrival of your baby is highly recommended. These professionals can tailor a management, training and behaviour modification plan to you and your pet’s individual situation and provide ongoing support if needed.

Further information and resources


Books:
How to introduce your dog to your baby by Kathy Kopellis McLeod

Websites:
We are Family - for expectant parents (The Victoria Government)


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