Preparing the Welcoming Committee

Last Editorial Review: 1/30/2005

Preparing for the Welcoming Committee

WebMD Feature

If you think that you can bring a new baby home without the family routine skipping a beat, you're kidding yourself. A new family member means change for everyone: you, your child, even the family pooch or kitty.

The good news is that with a little forethought and patience, you can teach everyone that life goes on -- not the same, maybe, but with plenty of love to go around.

"One of the major tasks for an older child is to realize they haven't lost their important position as king or queen of the mountain," says Dr. Joseph Hagan, a pediatrician from South Burlington, Vt., and clinical associate professor of pediatrics at University of Vermont College of Medicine. "Now there are two (or three or four) royalty holding that place."

With some planning, even Frisky can stay curled on the throne.

Preparing for a Birthday Party

How much your child understands about having a new sibling will depend in part on the child's age and how much he can comprehend. But nestled together on your ever-expanding lap can be a good starting point to talk about the new baby and what infants are like.

If your child is still using a crib, try switching him to a new bed at least a few months before the new baby arrives so that he doesn't feel he's being usurped. Dr. Hagan says you don't have to remove the crib, but use it for something else, such as stuffed animals. And, don't refer to it as your child's crib but as "the baby crib." Same with old baby clothes.

"You want to disconnect its ownership ... that these are items our family uses for our babies, not just our former baby," says Hagan, who serves on the American Academy of Pediatrics' committee on psychosocial aspects of child and family health.

Leslie Kincaid Burby of New York took her then 3-year-old son, Henry, to all her midwife appointments so he could hear the baby's heartbeat. She also shared old photos with Henry so he could visualize what newborns are like, how they nurse and more.

But Dr. Hyman Tolmas, a pediatrician in New Orleans, says not to make too big a deal too early. You can let them feel the baby kick, but don't focus too much on it or overdo the "big boy" or "big girl" role, which might exacerbate regression later.

"Nine months is a long time for a child to have to wait for a baby brother or sister," says Dr. Tolmas, clinical professor of pediatrics emeritus at Tulane University School of Medicine, clinical professor of pediatrics at Louisiana State University Medical Center and another member of the AAP psychosocial committee. "Once the announcement is made, I wouldn't make a lot of fuss over it because by the time the baby comes, they're already sick and tired of hearing about it."

No matter how much you try to prepare them, children still won't be able to grasp the full meaning of having a sibling until they meet face to face. They might imagine the 9-month-old baby down the street or a friend's 3-year-old brother who can already play catch.

As Jackson Teague, then 5, of Brooklyn, N.Y., inspected a plastic fetus and had a lesson in what it would be like during his family's home birth, he drew pictures illustrating his interpretation: a mermaid with some baby fish next to her, recalls his mother, Jennifer.

"Most kids have a fantasy system that won't be well-grounded in what it means for their family," says Dr. Hagan. "You can't expect them to fully know what's going on."

When you go to the hospital, bring a framed picture of the older sibling to put on your night stand. "Don't say anything about it," Dr. Hagan says. "One hundred percent of older siblings see it, and it just proves to them that they haven't been traded in for the new model."

When your older child visits after the birth, make room on the bed for both of you to hold the baby. You can even throw a birthday party. Your child can wrap a birthday present ahead of time to hide and retrieve when the baby is born.

"My wife actually made a birthday cake and popped it in the freezer," says Dr. Hagan, whose children are 21, 18, and 14-year-old twins. It's just another way of celebrating the birth in a way that an older child understands and can be part of ... And, it feels good."

Dr. Tolmas suggests that a friend or relative take your older child out when you bring the baby home so that when he bursts excitedly through the door, the first thing he sees is you, without the baby, to shower him with kisses and your undivided attention.

That's Life, Plus One

The new baby might appear exciting to your older child at first, but when reality sets in there's bound to be some bad feelings, whether it's resentment, disillusionment or some other negative emotion. It's OK.

"Henry went through a period of acting out, but towards us -- he never took it out on the baby," says Burby. "He'd stare at me with this look of disgust. I really had moments where I thought he hated me. I had horrible guilt about it and would just sob."

Even parents may go through a sense of loss. Jennifer Teague remembers sitting in the rocking chair nursing her daughter on the third day and crying as she watched her son, Jackson, playing independently on the floor nearby.

"I felt bad doing this to him," Teague says. "I was mourning what we had lost. We'll never have that back again, and that's OK, but at that moment it was painful."

The important thing is to accept your child's negative feelings, experts say. Teague remembers a visit the family made to a friend, who asked her son what that "thing" was and why his mom had to be holding it all the time. Couldn't they just get rid of her?

"His eyes got very big and he rolled his eyes and said, 'Because she's part of the family.' But he was so relieved. He wasn't carrying those feelings all by himself, and after that he was lighter. It was incredible," says Teague.

Don't tighten the reigns too much, either. Let the baby get used to the television and videocassette recorder going on in the house, instead of shushing the older child. Or if she's being too loud, just invite her to a tea party or some other quieter activity, suggests Dr. Tolmas. And don't treat the baby like a sacred cow -- let your older child help, such as by bringing you the wipes or diapers.

True, everyone's exhausted, but Burby discovered that once she and her husband stopped admonishing Henry for small trespasses like leaving his toys in a mess and loosened family rules -- letting him stay up later or watch an extra video -- his behavior improved.

She also stopped play dates for a while. "Instead, I had people come over and just sit with him in the living room and read, or I'd have them hold the baby so I could be with him. That worked much better. After a few days he was back to being my buddy again."

Try to schedule some special time alone with your older child. It doesn't have to be a trip to Disney World, says Dr. Hagan. It could be just 10 minutes playing with trucks on the floor. If it's a routine trip to the grocery store, make a point of stopping in the candy aisle.

Most parents discover quickly that a second infant doesn't need as much attention as they gave the first simply because they had the luxury of offering their undivided attention. It's also OK to teach your older child that his needs may not be as pressing at a certain moment.

"You learn some important things from having siblings," says Dr. Hagan. "You learn about delayed gratification. You learn that you might not get your needs met right away. You learn about sharing and dealing with other people besides Mom or Dad. And those are neat things to learn before you hit the true school of hard knocks, kindergarten."

Regression is common, but it's nothing to worry about, Dr. Tolmas says. Your child simply sees all the attention showered on the infant and thinks that if he's a baby again he'll get it, too -- even if you think you're giving him a lot of attention.

The best solution is just to take it in stride, says Dr. Tolmas. Don't yell at him if he wets the bed or his pants. If he wants a bottle or diapers, let him have it. "To tell them they're too big for this or too old, you'll just make them want it even more."

Burby remembers a conversation with Henry on the third day after entertaining a steady stream of visitors who raved about what a great big brother he was. "Mommy, sometimes I just wish someone would come over and tell me how lucky I was to be a baby," he said.

His parents asked if he wanted to wear diapers again for a few days. He said he did. They asked him if he wanted to ride in the stroller. He said he did. They went for a walk in the stroller, and when they returned, he appeared very relieved, says Burby.

She told him, "Henry, I just don't want you to worry about this. You're our wonderful Henry, and you don't have to worry about being a big brother," and he just like switched gears and said, 'Mommy, I want to be a big brother.'

"He had verbalized his fear. And once we said it was OK, then he was able to want to be a big brother again," she said. In fact, he toilet trained himself shortly after that. "He wanted to be special in a new way," said Burby.

In the long run, those early trials will become a foggy memory.

"Families grow, and it's not the end of the world," says Teague. "This new person has made our family that much more wonderful, and I wouldn't want it any other way. But there's definitely an adjustment involved."

Scent to Their Rooms

Don't forget to prepare the family dog or cat for the new family member. It's going to be a big change in their lives, too. You're inviting in all sorts of new smells and sounds and their routine will undoubtedly be different.

"Everything is different in their world, and they have to figure out a way to live around it," says Karen Okura, manager of animal behavior and training for the Anti-Cruelty Society in Chicago, Ill.

Common signs that your pet may be having a tough time: vomiting or diarrhea; elimination in the house or out of the litter box; destructive behavior, such as clawing or chewing objects; or howling and barking at night or when the baby cries.

Are they spiteful or jealous? Animal behaviorists say animals aren't capable of those emotions. "Mostly they're just confused with the world as they knew it," says Sarah Wilson, co-author of "Child-Proofing Your Dog: A Complete Guide to Preparing Your Dog for the Children in Your Life" (Warner Books, $9.99).

Sometimes dogs can become depressed, Wilson says. People will complain that the dog hasn't come out of the corner for a week. "I'll say, 'Have you been feeling sorry for him and giving him a lot of attention for being there?' and when they say 'Yes,' I say, 'Well, stop it.' The next day he's out of the corner."

The worst thing is to punish your pet, such as spraying your cat with water whenever he even looks at the baby, says Pam Johnson-Bennett, author of "Think Like a Cat," (Penguin, $16.95), to be released in January.

"If a cat has urinated outside the litter box, he's absolutely over the edge with stress. And, if you punish him, you make him think this has become a battle zone," says Johnson-Bennett.

Then the task of getting the pet adjusted to the new baby becomes even more arduous, she says. You not only have to get the animal to stop viewing the baby as the most horrible thing in the world, but you have to repair your own relationship with the animal.

"It's never too late to turn it around, " says Johnson-Bennett. "But you're going to have to be patient. It's going to be baby steps." Too often, experts say, families needlessly get rid of pets, either because they've been told pets and children don't mix or because they didn't know what to do when a problem arose.

Save the Baby Talk for Baby

The key to smoothing the transition for four-legged family members is giving them a chance to adjust, and the earlier the better.

"I'm not saying the cat or dog is going to throw rose petals on the floor when you come home with the baby -- the animal still may be a little bit anxious or nervous," says Okura. "But if owners do their homework and make preparations before the baby comes home, animals will get over that initial period quickly and thoroughly."

Here are some tips from the experts:

Make or buy a tape of infants crying: Then start to get your dog or cat accustomed to the sounds by playing it softly while you're doing something enjoyable with the animal, such as brushing him or massaging him. Gradually raise the volume over a period of weeks.

Cut the baby talk: "Those of us who don't have children speak to our dogs in very baby-talk ways," says Wilson. "Then you bring a baby home and say the exact same thing, the dog comes running over going, 'That's for me,' and you tell him to get away. Stick with 'What a good dog,' so they don't get cued when you say, 'Who's mommy's little girl?' "

Be scents-ible: For cats, who are territorial and especially sensitive to new smells, set up the baby's room gradually and allow your cat to explore, says Johnson-Bennett. If the cat jumps in the crib, you can set up some cans with pennies inside to keep the cat out. You can also put up a screen door or gate to keep it out, or teach a dog to stay out of certain rooms.

Adjust early: Make any expected changes in routine before the baby comes, so your animal has time to adjust. If you usually walk him at 5 a.m., you may want to do it at 6 a.m. since you may be up early feeding the baby first. If your dog is used to constant attention, try limiting praise to doing commands or remaining silent while letting the dog stay nearby.

Reinforce good manners: Say you have a dog that jumps on the couch at will or sits on your lap while you watch television. If you don't want that to continue after the baby arrives, then start teaching him to do so only if invited. You'll have more time to teach new commands before the baby comes, says Kathy McCarthy, a dog trainer in Chicago.

Toddler-proof your pet early: Get him used to being touched a little more harshly. Give him a treat if he lets you touch his ear. When you've got that down pat, reward him for letting you put a finger inside his ear or for tugging his hair a bit or yanking gently on his tail.

The bottom line is that pets are part of the family, too, and they can offer valuable lessons to children about kindness, empathy, responsibility, consistency and unconditional love. "If you have a terrible day at school, everybody teases you, no one picks you for volleyball, whatever, your dog doesn't care," says Wilson.

That bond can be powerful, too. Once when Wilson was 3, she toddled out to the train station about a mile and a half down the road to wait for her father. Somebody finally went to her house to tell her mother that the dog was sitting next to her baring his teeth to anyone who came within six feet of her.

"There's nothing like having a pet when you're a child," Wilson says. "But you do have to prepare for them to be animals and at least give them a chance to learn what's about to happen so they can respond in a productive way."

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