“No animal should be allowed to sleep with a baby,” says Jennifer Shyrock, certified dog behavior specialist and founder of Family Paws, an organization that offers programs to help guide doting pet parents as they introduce a new member (that would be the kiddo) into the family.
Shyrock and other health organizations actually take it a step further, recommending that you don’t allow your dog or cat to have unsupervised access to your child’s nursery or sleeping space. Here’s why:
First, a pet in bed with an infant could inadvertently suffocate the child. While the old wives’ tale of cats sucking the air out of a baby’s lungs is just a myth, some felines like to cuddle up in warm spots, which in this case could be on your baby’s face. On the Berkeley Parents Network site, several moms recount incidents of cats hopping into a baby’s crib; one ends with a blood-curdling scream and a scratched scalp, another, with fleas.
A puppy or grown dog sleeping with a child who can’t turn over or more her head is equally risky.
Second, pet dander or fur in a child’s bed, or bedroom, can affect the baby’s breathing. While there is some new research pet-owning parents will be happy to hear (more on that in a moment), pet fur can trigger allergies or make it more difficult for your baby to breathe.
Shyrock and others suggest that an adult supervise all interaction between dogs and babies. In fact, their general rule of thumb is that dogs should not be left unsupervised at any time with any child under the age of 10. “Any time” includes sleepy time, too.
We’re always within eyeshot when our creatures are playing together.
That’s good, but even watchful parents need to pay close attention to the interplay between dogs and children. What appears harmless and cute to an observer may actually be a warning sign.
“There are subtle signals a dog will use, such as lip licking, head turning and the positioning of its body, that can help clue parents in on how their pet is feeling during any particular [play time],” Shyrock says. “Often young children are [unintentionally] rough and even a closely watched cuddle session can be misinterpreted. What a child is enjoying may not be the same as what the dog is experiencing.”
This sounds like a Sophie’s Choice: my furry companion or my human offspring.
Not at all. There's no need to send your dog or cat packing if you’ve got a newborn or a baby on the way. Kids and dogs safely cohabitate in millions of households. Shyrock and other experts just recommend that parents get educated about some basic do’s and don’ts.
Here’s an idea: If your dog enjoys being in the nursery with you and your baby during those quiet times, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals recommends setting up a bed for your pet in the room. Give him treats or a chew toy to keep him occupied as you rock baby to sleep. When you leave the room, make sure your pet comes with you and close the door.
It’s also a good idea to vacuum your child’s bedroom regularly to keep the fur and dander floating around in there to a minimum.
What about that good news?
Recent research by the University of Wisconsin suggests that infants exposed to dogs may be less likely to develop allergies. Another study from Finland indicated that babies who grow up around dogs are less likely to suffer respiratory infections as toddlers, and that more contact with a family dog was associated with fewer health problems. Good news for parents who are in love with both their little bundle and little ball of fur.