It is important to prepare your dog or cat for your baby's arrival. But contrary to conventional "methods," I feel that the introduction shouldn't be a big production. Just act natural. It's true that some pets can feel cast aside or put off by the new addition, but there is a lot you can do behind the scenes to make sure the initial meeting and lifelong bonding between your baby and your pet go as smoothly as possible.
Before the Baby Comes
• If your pet has not spent a lot of time with infants, invite as many babies to your home as you can. This will help your pet get used to the smell, sounds, and attention-hogging nature of tiny humans. Be sure to supervise all interactions at all times.
• Make sure training is in order. This may require professional help. If your dog is prone to jumping on you or jumping right on your lap as your bottom is only halfway down to the couch cushion, you may need to train your pet to "sit" and "wait" to be invited into your lap. This is more crucial with larger or boisterous animals, but may also apply to cats or small dogs. Your lap will soon have a baby in it. That lap can be shared, but it needs to be on your terms, and it needs to be safe for the baby.
You can teach your pet to "settle." Give him a special place nearby (don't shun him from the family)–like a cushy bed–to go to when needed. Provide small treats to create a positive association with that spot so when you tell your pet to "settle," he is happy to do so. Polite manners around baby are important.
• Get your pet used to newborn noises and paraphernalia. Many pets will ignore a mechanical swing, but some might be startled. Even a glider or rocker that moves may be all new to your pet. Let him get used to these things before baby arrives. You can even use a baby doll to get your pet used to having a little body around.
• If you plan to walk your dog with a stroller, practice before baby arrives. It may seem like a simple thing, but walking a dog and pushing a stroller at the same time can be a challenge for you and your dog. Toward the end of my first pregnancy, I started walking our dog while pushing an empty stroller. Sure, I got a lot of odd looks, but it gave us a chance to practice without the worries of a real live being in the stroller. We worked all the bugs out, so we were ready to roll as soon as we brought my son home from the hospital.
• Most people don't want their cat lying in bed with their baby, so be sure that the baby's crib does not become a pet bed. Train your cat to stay away from the crib before the baby arrives. If this is a challenge and your cat insists on making it her own, the ASPCA recommends placing pennies in cans and lining them up along the crib rail. An attempt or two should be all your cat needs to know that the crib is off limits.
• Talk to your pet about the baby, and use your baby's name, if you've chosen one. It is thought that cats can understand between 25-35 words, and the average dog, approximately 165. That's about as many words as a human two-year-old! Your pet may not understand every nuance about the baby, but you'll have a nice head start if the concept isn't completely foreign.
• Pets are very sensitive to smell, so use that to your advantage. If you have lotion or some such thing that you plan to use on your baby's skin, rub a little bit on your own skin in the weeks leading up to your baby's birth. Your baby will seem more familiar to your pet.
• Start as you mean to go on. Don't drastically change your pet's routine as soon as the baby gets home. It is best to change your pet's routine as little as possible. If small adjustments have to be made, do them gradually over the duration of the pregnancy.
Once the Baby Arrives
• Make sure you have someone on call to care for your pet when it's time to go to the hospital. It's best to have a family member or professional pet sitter stay in your home to maintain your pet's routine.
• It is often recommended to have a staged initial meeting in a special room under special circumstances, but if you've done your work ahead of time to properly prepare your pet, something so formal shouldn't be necessary. I'm in favor of keeping the initial meeting as natural and casual as possible. Introduce your baby to your pet in a way that feels natural and safe to your family so everyone will be relaxed.
• Since your pet is sensitive to smell, bring home one of your baby's hospital blankets for your pet to smell before you bring your baby home. Having the garment around before the baby joins the family fold will help get your pet used to the actual smell of the new arrival.
• Energy is important. Remain calm during the initial meeting, and try your best to be relaxed during all interactions between your baby and your pet. If you feel anxious, your pet will pick up on your nervous energy and feel anxious, too. Stay even-keeled, and it's likely your pet will, too.
As Baby Grows
• Once your baby becomes mobile, it's a whole different ball game. Teach your baby–even before he's mobile–to respect your pet and your pet's things. If everyone is to live in harmony, your baby will have to be trained as much as your pet. Your initial inclination may be to separate your pet and toddler, but teaching is a better tactic in the long run. (Though providing your pet a safe, quiet spot away from the madness of the day is a must.) For best results, teach your baby from day one.
As a professional pet sitter, I started bringing my babies on pet sitting visits soon after we came home from the hospital. I talked to them about the animals in our care right away, even when they were just little mushy lumps. They learned to respect the animals. They learned early on the proper way to greet an animal, they know how to protect themselves from "jumpers," and they know the signs of an animal who simply wants to be left alone. They are not "tail pullers." I credit their behavior to early exposure and constant teaching.
• Keep it positive. Interact with your pet while the baby is around so your pet has positive associations with the baby. If you withhold attention when the baby is present, your pet will feel cast aside. Include your pet in interactions with the baby, instead.
• A little bribery never hurts. You can create a positive association with the baby or with any object your pet might need adjusting to by providing treats. For example, if you pet is bothered when the baby cries, have some small treats on hand to provide when the baby cries out. Your pet will soon realize that crying is just a part of what babies do and he doesn't need to hide each time it happens.
• Don't be afraid to let them interact, but never leave them unsupervised.
When my son, Porter, was about eight months old, I left him unsupervised with our dog, N.A.S.H.A. (I did not practice what I preach). He and N.A.S.H.A. already had a tight bond, as she'd rarely leave his side. I took for granted that nothing could go wrong. On one occasion, I left the room for a couple of minutes. I heard N.A.S.H.A. let out the slightest whimper–a noise I'd never heard form her before. I rushed in and saw Porter with two dog fur pom-poms, one in each hand. He was smiling, and she was not, yet her loyalty to him overrode any instinct she had to bite or run away. She stuck by his side and didn't harm him. We were lucky. She's a dream to have not slaughtered him. I learned a lesson. I felt terrible for N.A.S.H.A., and so thankful as I pondered the possibilities of how things may have gone down, had she not been so tolerant.
A Word of Caution
Pets are part of the family, and I'm all for making sure your baby and your pet are the best of friends, but caution should always be used, both for the safety of your child and your pet.
NEVER leave your baby or toddler with your pet unsupervised. Until your child is older and consistently treats your pet with respect and care without guidance, children and pets should never be left alone. There is no magical age...it all depends on your child and your pet.
If your pet shows any signs of aggression toward your baby, it is important to get professional help immediately. For a list of certified trainers, go to the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers web site.
Overall, I feel that the more time your baby and pet spend together, the better. Bonding is important. Your baby's first interactions with animals will help shape her attitude about animals for a lifetime. Focus on the positive. If you keep things positive for all parties, you're sure to foster a winning partnership to last your baby's childhood, and a respect for animals to last a lifetime.
This article by me originally appeared on Hybrid Rasta Mama, for whom I create original content. It has been published here with minor changes with permission.