Judging by the popularity of pet-proud bumper stickers, talking animal movies, and fur-baby costume contests, it’s safe to say animal companionship is a common quality of American life — one that families don’t wish to forgo when expecting their own human baby. So how do they make it work?
The first thing to consider is the species of pet, which serves as the foundation for your approach. In this article, we’ll focus on dogs and cats, who may be most affected by a new little one’s arrival.
Let’s step inside your pet’s shoes (paws) for a minute. Their family dynamic is about to shift pretty drastically. They may have an inkling about what specific changes are afoot, or perhaps not — either way, they can sense big things around the bend (or the curve of your belly). During pregnancy they may begin to feel insecure, unstable, nervous, and clingy. After a taste of life with a newborn, they may feel threatened or neglected as they were once the “baby” and this role has been usurped for the foreseeable future. You can compassionately support your pet by properly preparing them, enforcing boundaries, and reminding them they are still as beloved as ever.
Preparing a Pet Household for a New Baby
Knowing pets thrive on routine, brainstorm how you can manifest a kind of normalcy in their days to come. A few ideas for balancing needs: schedule bonding time; focus on quality in your activities together, rather than quantity; request a postpartum doula to assist with pet care during her shift; invest in a variety of ways to keep pet occupied (squeaker toy heaven!).
Get started with preparations as early as possible, easing your pet into a routine similar to what you can expect postpartum (think less “by the clock” and more “go with the flow”). For example, acclimate your pet to shorter walks and decreased one-on-one time during pregnancy instead of waiting for baby to divide your focus a hundred ways in all directions (don’t worry, I double-checked that math). Soften the rigidity of feeding times (newborns don’t live by watches and neither will you!). Consider hiring a dogwalker post-birth; scheduling a few practice walks when life is more relaxed (before baby is born) can help your pup look forward to these outings as a treat instead of feeling like his needs are an outsourced inconvenience.
You can also set the tone for impending baby days by playing audio of infant noises, offering baby-related smells (a disposable diaper, baby wipes, a drop of colostrum…). Take a walk with the stroller, perhaps with baby doll in tow, so your pooch gets used to pacing alongside this strange bulky contraption (better yet, babywearing on walks frees up a hand!). If planning to go the stroller route, please resist the urge to tie your pet’s leash to the handle — this is extremely dangerous! One glimpse of squirrel and your whole caravan of precious cargo goes flying down the road. On that note, the months leading up to birth are a perfect time to brush up on obedience training.
Finally, don’t forget to plan for someone to care for your pet while in the hospital/birth place. A transition period should be expected for each new baby, so don’t assume your pet remembers the protocol from a few kiddos ago.
Introducing an Existing Pet to Baby
The big day has come! This introduction should be a warm, positive experience so your pet associates baby with good things. Arrange for someone else to hold baby while you affectionately greet your pet, who can be invited to investigate baby’s scent on a blanket, stuffie, or onesie. Then offer space to approach baby when they are ready; do not bring baby to your pet, who may not appear too accepting right away (that’s okay — try again after a tasty meal and some snuggles). If your pet gets excessively enthusiastic about baby, don’t remove your pet; instead, take baby away temporarily. This simple detail can make all the difference in emphasizing value, trust, and confidence in your pet. Focus on offering praise instead of over-disciplining.
Now that the practicalities are out of the way, you need to know about safety rules-of-thumb going forward. Most importantly, whether your fur-baby meows or woofs, never leave the animal unsupervised with baby. Pets and babies are equally unpredictable — pets with their wilder instincts and babies with their erratic movements and unprovoked crying fits. Things can get tense quickly, and it’s unfair to put any of them in an uncomfortable, confusing situation.
This is when it’s pertinent to set boundaries: a pet should not be allowed in a room where baby sleeps (commit to non-toxic deterrent products if needed). Safety gates and screen doors can help a pet feel less isolated. You can also try tethering your pet on a lead (indoors) or crate training, which some pets find reassuring. When a pet must be separated from the rest of the family, make sure you choose an appropriate resting space — not a cold basement, dark garage, or out in the elements.
If your pet uses flea and tick medication, confirm it’s non-toxic to baby in the event they get close (your veterinarian can walk you through options). And your prenatal care provider likely already gave you this shpiel, but here it is again: pregnant women should not be tasked with changing cat litter boxes, a chore that bears risk of toxoplasmosis infection which can be transmitted to baby in-utero.
Now continue to set a good example! Respectfully and firmly establish a pecking order so everyone knows who is taking care of whom. Toddlers should know a pet’s space is sacred and be encouraged to leave a pet’s food and water bowls, toys, litter box, and bed alone.
A final word from the wisened by weariness: anticipate occasionally forgetting about your cherished pet, especially in early postpartum. Stock up on supplies like food (or sign up for a temporary subscription service, or invest in an automatic feeding device), set daily reminders on your phone for pet duties, and always know where your pet is when you start winding baby down for a nap… it can take but a single moderate-volume bark for the whole operation to sink!
That said, feel free to eagerly daydream about all the sweet bonding moments to come. Children who grow up with animals have many opportunities to learn about empathy, sensitivity, and the simple joys of life. Have fun!
Holly Milkowski is a Houston-based Birth Boot Camp Instructor by day, Birth Boot Camp Doula by night (or whenever baby’s ready to be born!). She homeschools her two children, authors the breastfeeding blog MamasMilkNoChaser.com, and directs Intact Houston, her local non-profit chapter of Saving Our Sons. You might otherwise find her collecting books, snuggling animals, or staying up late writing.