The day we brought our newborn son home from the hospital, we were curious to see what the reaction of our two cats would be. We proudly set down the infant carrier in the center of the living room and watched them, happy to be a complete household again. One circled the carrier confusedly, sniffing it a little, then coming up to rub against our legs. The other eyed it suspiciously from afar. It was a pretty uneventful beginning.
We didn’t expect that the transition would be excessively traumatic for them. A couple of years earlier, we had taken in a stray kitten, something our two older cats did not appreciate at all. She was feisty and full of energy and delighted in attacking them the minute they got up to go anywhere. We had assumed that our older cats would put a stop to this eventually by putting the little one in her place, but it just never happened. Though they often fight and wrestle each other (they are brothers) and did play with her a little at first, they ended up huddling miserably together in one corner while the kitten waited impatiently for them to get up - which they began to studiously avoid doing - so she could tackle them. I had never seen them happier than when we found a new home for the kitten - suddenly even the cranky old codger brother was the most affectionate of lap cats.
We figured adjusting to the baby would pale by comparison. After all, he wouldn’t even be able to tackle them for several months and we wouldn’t be leaving them alone together even then, unlike with the kitten. Their reaction was certainly different, but they seemed equally traumatized. Over the course of the first week or two they overturned their litter box (one of the large, covered kind) several times, something I’d never seen them do before. Puking, while normal for cats, became an every other day event. In the birthing class we attended, the instructor recommended bringing home something the baby had touched - a blanket or article of clothing - for dogs to sniff before bringing home the actual baby. In retrospect, maybe we should have done this for our cats, but we didn’t. Instead, they gradually became used to the new functioning of our household. Our schedule settled into a routine, and they began napping together on the sofa next to the baby and me during the day. They found ways to be close to us, even if it was more difficult.
When our son began crawling, they had a new adjustment to make. This one didn’t seem to traumatize them so much, but they did seem a little perplexed by it. Suddenly the wailing, tiny stranger who puked even more than they did, was heading straight for them on hands and knees. First one, then the other cat began to seek me out for attention now that I was spending more time on the floor than on the sofa and seemed startled to see the baby hurtling towards them, hand outstretched to grab what fur he could. The friendlier of the two soon made a game of gracefully side stepping the baby’s grasp. Eventually he relaxed to the point of flopping lazily on the floor, purring, waiting till the last possible second before the baby’s hand could close on his tail before flicking it out of reach and ambling unhurriedly to another part of the room. The codger eyed the baby with much more suspicion and didn’t let him get as close before moving away.
It was around this time that we all began sleeping together. In the past, the cats had slept on our bed, but were kicked out during my pregnancy and when the baby was a newborn. When he finally weighed as much or more than the cats, we figured they would leave him alone. As our son got ever more aware, this created a new problem that led to them being kicked out again. The baby would stir some throughout the night, but if this happened in the early morning hours, one cat would inevitably get up and start pacing the bed as if to say: Okay, I’m awake - let’s have breakfast! This then led to the baby waking up fully, looking around for them, and saying “tat!” When this became a regular occurrence a good hour before we planned to get up, we decided it was time to use the baby gate for the cats.
The good news is that things only stand to improve from here for our cats. The friendly one already gives affectionate nudges to the baby with his head and the codger … well, he enjoys watching the baby from up on the sofa, as long as the baby’s arm is not quite long enough to reach him. We have been working with our son to teach him about “gentle hands” and the right way to pet the cats and already it seems to be having a small impact.
I’d say we have a definite cat-lover in training.
J LeBlanc is a former high school teacher who resides in Lebanon, N.H. She is currently taking a break from teaching to stay home with her 8-month-old son.
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