When my wife and I brought home our new daughter, we were over the moon. Every opportunity we had to count her toes, and marvel at the tiny little life we created really cemented us as a family. It’s true what they say – having a baby will make you experience a love you never knew existed.
Even though we were over the moon with happiness and excitement to finally use the nursery and the countless outfits my wife bought from Babies R’ Us (my eight-month-old has a better wardrobe than me), our dog Bella realized what a major adjustment having her in the house was.
While dogs, cats, and other pets can learn to be gentle and even helpful with a new baby, like my favorite mutt, Bella, who watches over my daughter like she earns a paycheck (I really think she’d choose my daughter over me at every turn), it’s important to prepare them for the event of meeting their newest family member before the baby arrives. Even after the baby is home, however, pets can be taught how to treat their new family member, and adults in the household should continue to keep a close eye on both pets and children to help avoid risks like dog bites.
Here are several tips to consider when it’s time to help your pets adjust to a new baby in the family:
1. What is exciting for you may be confusing for your pet.
Consider the situation from a dog’s or cat’s point of view, recommends the American Kennel Club (AKC). You’ve been preparing for months for the arrival of a new baby. Your pet, however, probably hasn’t connected the influx of baby clothes (seriously, Molly!?) and toys and the refurbished nursery to the idea of a new small human in the house. The strange noises, smells, and movements the baby makes may be unlike anything your pet has ever seen before — and your pet may not understand why they are no longer the center of attention.
By starting from your pet’s point of view, you can more easily find ways to make the transition easier for your pet.
2. Start as soon as you can.
If you can start preparing your pet before the baby comes home, do so. The AKC recommends an extra obedience class for dogs to make sure they understand how to sit, stay, and avoid jumping, as well as how to come when you call so that you don’t have to chase your dog with your hands full of an infant. Teaching both cats and dogs to accept being touched in unusual places, like the inside of the ears or the toes, can also help them stay calmer when babies or toddlers begin to explore, says Nikole Gipps at BabyCenter. I can concur that my daughter is obsessed with Bella’s paws.
3. If you’ll need to change your pet’s routines, change them gradually before the baby comes home.
Making a change all at once when the baby arrives can cause a pet to associate the change with the baby, making it harder to make the change “stick” and to get your pet to act warmly toward your new infant. Instead, make changes gradually before the baby arrives, if possible. For instance, work on shifting where a pet sleeps or what time of day they are walked. If you plan to walk the dog and baby together, practice walking with an empty stroller so the dog becomes accustomed to the stroller’s presence and movement.
4. Use recordings and other items to familiarize your pet with baby’s sounds and smells.
Recordings of baby sounds, like cooing and crying, can help your pet get used to the noises of having a baby in the house. Similarly, using baby lotion on your own hands or opening a container of baby powder can help pets start to associate these new smells with their regular home and routine. When the baby is born, sending a blanket or outfit home before the baby comes home can help pets learn the baby’s smell before he or she arrives.
5. For the first few days, keep your pets out of the baby’s space.
Let pets adjust from a distance and gradually, by keeping them out of the baby’s room or other personal space, such as your bedroom if baby sleeps there in a bassinette. The sounds, smells, and sights of you carrying, feeding, or changing the baby will filter through to your pet and let them learn more about the new family member at a more relaxed pace.
A few days or a week after the baby comes home, allow pets to sniff the baby, but only if they show interest. Control them while they do so by holding them or placing them on a leash. At all times, keep the baby elevated and place an adult between the baby and the pet, recommends the AKC.
6. Even when the baby is around, give attention to pets.
Pets, especially dogs, who associate receiving attention with the baby’s absence are more likely to become jealous and to act out as a result, according to the AKC. Instead, pet, praise, and provide treats to your dog or cat when they are behaving well, even when you are also occupied with the baby.
7. Never leave a child alone with a pet.
As your child grows, you’ll need to supervise interactions between the child and the pet. Make sure crawling babies don’t grab or pull on a pet’s tail, ears, or coat. Create a private space for your pet that is off-limits to your child, like a crate, bed, or gated laundry room, so that your pet has a place to retreat if they start to feel overwhelmed by the exploring child.
Above all, patience and calm are important. As your baby grows, remember to teach him or her how to treat the family’s pets, as well. Children who learn proper pet care and manners as toddlers are far more likely to grow up knowing how to “read” animal body language and avoid serious injuries like scratches or bites in the future.