Bringing Home Baby: The Unexpected Events Series (Episode 1 – Early Birth and the NICU)

I probably won’t be the first to tell you there is no shortage of available resources for expecting parents. Books, magazines, apps, articles, and discussion forums are everywhere, and when I was pregnant I received daily emails with details about registry essentials, notes about what fruit my baby was the size of any given week, foods to avoid, what to pack in the hospital bag, and fairly obvious details about what my body was going through (as if I were somehow unaware of my own day-long nausea and swollen ankles).

I signed my husband and myself up for childbirth classes, and took part in a Dogs & Storks class at our training school to help in preparing our dogs for life with baby. I was diligent about scheduling appointments with my physician and midwife practice. We painted the nursery, built the crib, and washed loads of baby clothes. We set up the stroller and started treating the dogs when it was around. I studied the many options of pain management and methods for having a baby without medication, and started thinking about my birth plan. I started doing meet and greets with my friends who offered to watch Ollie and Balton when I went into labor, so when December came they (namely Balton with his stranger danger issues) would be okay going to someone’s house or having someone come to our place for a few days.

What none of these things really prepared me for was the notion that I, going through what was by all accounts a “normal” pregnancy, would have my water break four weeks early. My husband was on the other side of the world for his job, having strategically planned this work trip so he would be back should I go into labor three weeks earlier than my due date. I had about a million loose ends at work that I had planned to wrap up by early December, and having every intention of being in the office the day my son was born, my desk was a mess.

Birth plan? All in my head. Hospital bag? Packed, but as the on call nurse at the hospital didn’t seem to think I was in labor, I was not told to bring it with me and didn’t think to do otherwise. Dogs? I had no real emergency plan in place for them, so I woke them up at 1am, took them outside to potty, and left them in the kitchen with food and water. I would have to figure something out if it ended up I would be staying at the hospital longer than a few hours.

My concern in that moment was something was wrong. The idea that I was in labor didn’t really cross my mind until a couple hours later, when I was told I would be admitted and should plan to deliver a baby within the next 24 hours.

Thanks to the little bit of “just in case” planning we had done, and an ability to adapt to changing circumstances that I can only assume was inherited from my mother, my sister and mom met me at the hospital, acted as my birth coaches in my husband’s absence, and took a trip to Target to pick up recovery clothes for me. My amazing (and dog savvy) friend turned things upside down in order to come to my house to care for Ollie and Balton until my husband made it stateside. My co-workers re-routed my emails and told me not to worry about anything at the office. My son was born just before 5pm on a Thursday, and my husband arrived at the hospital by 10am the next day. I learned and accepted my first parenting lesson – someone else was calling the shots on my life as I knew it.

Giving birth was hard, but I expected it to be. What I didn’t expect was some of the hard stuff that happened after birth. I had planned to do this as a single list post, but then I realized that writing about them as completely as I want to would make for a really long post. So, each piece will get its own post, which I hope helps resonate with people a little more broadly (a NICU mom might not be a breastfeeding mom, or a dog mom might not be a working mom, etc, so finding common ground might be found more easily in the little pieces of the full picture). With that…my first item on the list of unexpected bringing home baby events.

Unexpected Bringing Home Baby Event #1: Becoming a NICU Mom.

Baby boy was born at 36 weeks gestation, which qualified him as “late pre-term.” This meant he might acclimate to the outside world just fine, but it also meant he might not, and we wouldn’t know until he arrived. He came out breathing fast and grunting, which I would soon learn were symptomatic of respiratory distress. After about 3 hours in the nursery for monitoring, he didn’t acclimate on his own and was taken to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, where he would remain for six days to help him breathe on his own and later be treated for jaundice.

I can’t speak for any mom beyond myself, but for me, having a late pre-term NICU baby came with a dichotomy of emotions. It was an incredibly supportive environment (NICU nurses are truly remarkable individuals), yet I felt so terribly lonely. I recall sitting in a hospital breastfeeding class the morning after baby boy was born, trying my hardest not to cry because everyone else had a baby to hold while mine was connected to monitors and a C-PAP machine. Pumping in my hospital room instead of nursing my baby made me sad, disappointed as I collected nothing, then teeny tiny drops to try and bring a medicine dropper of something to my little one being fed through tubes. I spent hours watching the clock, monitoring pump times, NICU visiting hours, and trying to catch a nap in between them and trying to be a gracious visitee to my hospital visitors. I wandered the halls, bringing my little medicine droppers of colostrum to his attending nurse, trying to coordinate my visit with his feeding/diaper changing time. I would spend some time watching him, and go back to my room to pump, sleep, and try not to cry. In the moments where I was without my family or attending nurses, I would just go ahead and cry. When I was discharged from the hospital, my brain was telling me he was in the best possible place, yet my heart was aching and I was sobbing because I was leaving with a hospital rental pump instead of a baby.

I felt guilty, like I had done something wrong, causing him to come early and need to go there in the first place. And I felt guilty for having a baby who, despite his very real health needs, was probably the most robust of the NICU babies. We were stationed next to a family whose little girl had been born at 25 weeks gestation and, glancing at the little index card they use to track baby weights, I saw she was not even 2 lbs. This mom and I would regularly find one another in the room set within the NICU wing for pumping, and although we were both going through the NICU experience, we were each going through very different experiences. She would continue to visit her daughter daily until closer to her due date (mid-February) and I would get to bring my son home after just a week. She had to look at her baby through the plastic walls of an incubator when I was able to hold him (under close supervision) after just two days. I counted my blessings for sure. But while I knew my own stress and emotions were valid, I also somehow felt badly for feeling them.

After four days, I was given the okay to try and nurse him. The hospital lactation consultant had warned me that for a 36-weeker, it would likely be similar to tasking a first-grader with third-grade level work. With this in mind, I tried not to be too discouraged when I attempted to feed him and he seemed utterly unsure of what to do. I was also terribly engorged once my milk had started to come in, which didn’t make things any easier on us. The nurses advised I pump a little before feeding time, but nursing was no easier. On day five, when we called in a lactation consultant to help, he went from utterly unsure to utterly unhappy and refused to eat. Fortunately by then he was eating from a bottle without issue, which is all the NICU required for allowing him to go home. All I could do was hope he would eventually get it. Nursing a pre-term baby and dealing with some persistent engorgement issues in the early days presented its own unique challenges, but that’s another post for another day. I’m happy to report he now nurses like a champ and many of the early postpartum pains and problems I encountered did dissipate over time. But man, do I understand how moms lacking proper support systems (and maybe also my hardwired stubborn streak) might intend to breastfeed, but give up because they don’t think their bodies are built for it.

One benefit of the NICU was that it allowed me the opportunity to try and catch up on some sleep (relatively speaking, anyway – I was still waking in the middle of the night to pump and super emotional and stressed out, but my baby was in the very capable hands of his nurses). Another benefit was I was able to come home to my dogs and spend some time with them between leaving them in the kitchen for the hospital and bringing their new human brother home. I brought a blanket for them to sniff, and amid the hormonal, leaking, sore, exhausted mess I was, I took in some much needed cuddles. I don’t know if this down time between my homecoming and baby boy’s homecoming made much of a difference for the dogs, but I felt at least a little better prepared for when we brought him home and introduced everyone (I also had time to pick up some bully sticks to make a good first impression).  And yet, I would find myself struggling quite a bit (and so much more than I expected to) with how to get through the weeks that would follow as our furry family would need to make room for their not so furry family member.

More on that, and how we managed, next time…

P.S. – This article might be one of the best “checklist” type articles I’ve read for handling the NICU experience, whether your wee one is a micropreemie or closer to term, like ours. Thank you Sharon Epel for penning it, it’s a great little resource.

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Shedding, Hair Loss, and 3 More Things Shared Between New Moms and Family Dogs

The changing of seasons and the shift of postpartum hormones has resulted in a lot of hair being shed and ending up all over the place in my house. As I have found myself vacuuming, wiping down surfaces, and sufficiently more grossed out at finding strands of human hair in my hands than plucking dog hairs off my clothes, I have somehow felt a little more of a physical connection to my dogs than I usually do.

Although it seems no amount of furminating will effectively minimize Balton’s endless shedding, I happily accepted my husband’s offer to watch the baby this weekend so I could get a haircut in an effort to at least minimize my own shedding. While I was at the human version of the groomer, thinking of my personal dog-ness in that moment, I couldn’t help but think of some of the other ways being a new mom has furthered my empathy for dogs as they try to co-exist with humans. I adore my son, and love being a mom. But sometimes I there are things I want to tell him, and I know for sure these are all things our dogs want and need to convey to us.

The good news (for the dogs anyway) is we grown-up humans with our more capable brains can respond to the questions and concerns of the dogs a little more adeptly than our babies can. Sorry, moms. At least we can all find comfort in cuddling up to the dogs knowing we share some common concerns.

1. Help me understand what you want from me. Trying to meet the needs and demands of a miniature human with, let’s face it, pretty limited communication skills in their early months is often a guessing game. And although over time I’ve started to decipher the difference between a hungry cry and a bored cry, I still find myself guessing and don’t always get it right on the first try. As I understand it, eventually we will be speaking the same language, but presently my only hope for survival is to learn the intricate language of baby. So I’d best adapt to it.

Likewise, dogs don’t come wired learning to speak human, and alas, they don’t enter a home automatically knowing what the house rules are. To quote Dr. Ian Dunbar and his TED Talk on the subject, “I could speak to you and say, “Laytay-chai, paisey, paisey.” Go on, something should happen now. Why aren’t you responding? Oh, you don’t speak Swahili. Well, I’ve got news for you. The dog doesn’t speak English, or American, or Spanish, or French.”

A good trainer will tell us that to teach a dog “sit” (or any verbal cue, for that matter), it’s best to teach the behavior through shaping, luring, showing the dog the behavior we desire. We then add the verbal cue later. Consistency is also critical in maintaining behavior. As Dr. Sophia Yin explains, “leadership is established when humans can set clear guidelines for the dog’s behavior and can effectively communicate the rules by always rewarding correct behaviors as they occur while preventing or immediately removing the rewards for undesirable behaviors before they are accidentally reinforced. The owner must stick to this plan long enough for the good behaviors to become a habit. When owners can meet these criteria, their dog learns to view them as consistent, predictable, and able to guide. Alternatively, when rules change randomly the dog may view the owner the same way you might view a boss who keeps changing his mind.”

Image source: http://drsophiayin.com

I would be silly to assume that my 4 month old son is capable of having enough cognition to know how to communicate his needs. It’s up to me as his mom to figure it out, but while babies are limited in their communication abilities, he gives me instant and helpful feedback as to whether he’s hungry, needs a diaper change, is bored, overstimulated, or tired. I may have to guess a little, but as he communicates his needs and I become familiar with his schedule and patterns, I am better at getting it right on the first try, which is a big boost to my own confidence as a parent. To the extent that we can help our dogs get it right on the first try, we should.

2.Please stop that, you’re hurting me. 

Being a breastfeeding mom comes with its own unique set of benefits and challenges. Right now, one of those challenges is helping my little one find something to do with his hands while he nurses. Amid a sleepy-eyed late night nursing session last night he grabbed some skin and dug his nails in. It hurt a lot, and I found myself yelling “ouch, that hurts!” as I took his hand and moved it away.

Now, immediately after my exclamation I had enough sense to reflect and know that he has no idea what I’m saying at this point, or even what it means to cause someone pain. He’s just doing what normal babies do, which is why I usually hold his hand or wear a teething necklace or let him grab at fabric from my clothes so this interaction can have more appropriate context. But it got me to thinking about the things we do to dogs to show affection, but that the dogs may not be comfortable with.

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Image source: http://www.livingwithkidsanddogs.com

This behavior continuum chart from the Living with Kids and Dogs site provides some illustrations of some common human and dog interactions, including some that can lead to trouble and potential bites. Just like humans, dogs also have a limit for not only what interactions they can/will tolerate, but when they will tolerate them. Having your 5-year-old climb into your lap for cuddles on a balmy day might be welcome, but on a 90 degree humid summer scorcher, you might ask your little one not to hang all over you. For me, getting clawed at by a infant son in the light of day isn’t nearly as jarring as it is at 4 am, when I’m in a holding pattern of two-to-three-hour sleep stretches.

Stress and circumstances can change a response, so while your family dog may tolerate being hugged under most circumstances, there are two things to be mindful of. The first, I’m sorry to report, is that most dogs don’t actually enjoy hugs, and it’s in our kids’ and fur kids’ interest to teach this to children. The second is that generally speaking, dog bites don’t happen without warning or a display of preliminary stress signals. Oftentimes, a warning snap is a dog’s equivalent to communicating, “hey, knock that off!” but the consequences can be devastating to a child and the family dog alike. This is why it’s so important to understand how to interact with dogs in ways that are not threatening to them, and when to stop interactions by recognizing stress signals. Which brings me to common point number three…

3. I’m stressed out and need a few minutes to myself. One of the things they taught us in childbirth class (and that is written in many a parenting article and health article for prevention of shaken baby syndrome, or SBS) is the importance of stress management in parenting. The CDC’s guidelines for preventing SBS state “when you feel frustrated, angry, or stressed while caring for your baby, take a break.” This may involve taking the equivalent of taking a mommy time-out: putting baby in a crib on his or her back, making sure the baby is safe, and then walking away for a bit, checking on him or her every 5 to 10 minutes.

As a new mom, there have been a few overwhelming moments where I’ve needed to call my husband in for reinforcement. And then there have been a few in those early weeks where I didn’t need to call him in, but he would see the fatigue and some tears of my own on the verge of spilling over, and tell me to go take a nap – that he had it under control but he would wake me if he needed to. I didn’t have the wherewithal to tell him I needed a break, but he saw my stress signals and gave it to me.

When dogs are stressed out, they need to be given this opportunity.They can’t ask for a break in humanspeak, and it’s important for us parents to provide them with safe havens and success stations while children are still learning boundaries and appropriate interactions. Family Paws Parent Education has some excellent resources on success stations (pictured below) and be mindful about the types of dog-child supervision and which type you’re practicing.

successstations
 Image source: http://familypaws.com/

Another note about success stations, noted in the Family Paws handout, is to be mindful of your dog’s emotional state and help your child understand these spaces are off limits. This helpful handout from the San Francisco SPCA instructs that “dogs need their own space for meals, chews, or special treats and for rest away from the child’s activities. The dog’s space must be a secure area for times when a parent/guardian cannot supervise the child and dog. Don’t allow children to play in the dog’s crate or sleeping area.”

Parents – I know it may seem sweet when our little humans want to cuddle up in the dog’s bed or play in their crate. But when I see “cute” pictures of kids in the crate it makes my stomach turn. Playing pretend doggy and invading the dog’s safe spaces is not cool or safe. Harassing or teasing a dog when he’s on a tether is mean. Chasing a dog when a dog has no means to escape creates a frightening experience for the dog, and children need to be taught this and how to be a kid dogs feel safe with. Please be proactive in teaching these lessons to your little ones, but please also be proactive in understanding those doggie signs of stress and giving him an out when he needs it.

Having a common understanding and empathy for these three points is something that will hold steady as our family continues to learn, grow, and support one another. Happily, I’m told my own mass shedding will cease by the time my son turns one, so at some point my dogs and I (hopefully) won’t have this one thing in common anymore. I’m looking forward to the day when I can get back to normal and only have to reckon with mass quantities of dog hair in my house.

But I’m Stuck in Colder Weather, Maybe Tomorrow Will be Better

I’ve been singing the refrain to this Zac Brown band song over, and over, and over again. Winter and its short days, long nights, icy chills and cold precipitations, has never exactly been optimal with a couple of mutts and two full-time working humans. Add childbirth, an infant, and the physical consequences of recovery and sleep deprivation into the equation and it gets a whole lot harder. One dog seemed to forget he was house trained for a little while, one dog has been whining at the door a lot more often, and episodes of zoomies have been occurring with greater frequency.  I have been grateful for the existence of treat dispensing toys and having trained my dogs well enough that things are not completely upside down. We also were awarded a winter gift of one random 60 degree day in early February, allowing a Pit Crew walk for Balton and a regular walk around the lake for Ollie and baby brother.

Since that day, we’ve experienced subzero windchills, two snow storms, and last night, an ice storm that resulted in slippery sidewalks paying homage to Home Alone. Suffice it to say we’re all ready for springtime.

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Fortunately, there are resources out there for families who are dealing with Seasonally Affected Dogs and humans shaking their fists at Punxsutawney Phil. This post here from Notes from a Dog Walker is chock full of indoor exercise tips for dogs, and for families with kids who have slightly better motor skills than ours, this piece from Living with Kids and Dogs helps get the little ones in on the action too.

Hang in there, sunnier skies and shorter sleeves will be here soon!

The New Normal

Way back when I decided to start blogging, my mission was pretty straightforward. I was a foster parent for a local animal rescue, and I wanted to find my foster pups forever homes. When one of those fosters ended up finding his forever home with my family, the mission changed some. We no longer had the capacity to foster with regularity because our “foster failure” brought us into the new territory of reactive dog parenthood. Suddenly, my little foster blog became a platform to educate, raise awareness, and have a platform for sharing the joys, frustrations, and love that came with helping a lovely dog learn how to live well in a world that was sometimes a little scary to him.

After some time went by, we learned our family would be expanding, and that our family of four-legged kids would soon welcome their first two-legged sibling. And once again, our mission would change. In November, our baby boy was born, and even though we had 9 months to prepare for it, life would change in ways we couldn’t expect, no matter how much advance notice we had been given or how much planning we had completed.

The last two months we’ve been making sure everyone is fed, cared for, and sufficiently snuggled. We’ve been losing sleep but expanding the love in our hearts. We’ve been adjusting to our new normal of life with kids and dogs (nevermind the careers we keep outside the home to support them all). It was a life that in abstract concerned me a lot when I knew it was coming. Now it’s here and I’m immersed in it, living moment to moment and sometimes not entirely clear what day it even is. And though it sometimes feels a little chaotic, I’m so grateful for my little family and all the new experiences we are having together. We’re just getting started though.

Someone who had read my writings at “Faith, Trust, and Foster Pups” said she had hoped I would share our experiences in life with our kids and dogs publicly. I couldn’t say I was really ready to do that until now, and I still don’t really know how this is going to turn out. I’ve read and heard plenty of times that it’s important we don’t assess dogs by whether they are “good dogs” or “bad dogs” – but that instead we understand a dog’s behavior should be seen as a moment in time, and ask “is this a good moment for the dog or a bad moment for the dog?” The same can be said for children, and heck, even us grown-ups. So I don’t know how it will all play out to try and live in the moments, capture the moments, keep it real, keep it positive, and hopefully be useful and entertaining.

The other thing is, when I got pregnant I did a ton of “kids and dogs” homework and preparation, but I didn’t really get to see stories of people with kids and fearful/reactive dogs living well.  Surely we weren’t the first family to believe that a having a dog fearful of strangers need not mean that with some attention to how dogs learn and TLC, that dog couldn’t also learn to live with a new little person? Or were we? While we were doing all we could to achieve a successful transition, it would have been nice to see that we weren’t alone (or totally crazy or reckless for expanding our family when one of our dogs wasn’t a typical “bomb-proof” family dog).

This blog isn’t so much meant to be a place to share training advice as it is a place where we take some of what we’ve learned and share what we’re living (but I will tell you where to find some of the good, solid training advice we’ve found especially helpful). I hope you’ll indulge me as we embrace our new normal, and continue to share in the joys, frustrations, and love that our family has lived, plus one. Our mission here has changed some, but is still pretty straightforward: it’s for kids and fur-kids…we’re here for them and know that sometimes life with them can be full of good moments, rough moments, and sometimes even a treasured quiet moment. Our goal is to have fun and be safe, to teach our baby how to live well with his furry brothers, teach our furry babies how to live well with their fur-less brother. Our mission is family, and from ours to yours, we hope you’ll join us as we learn and grow together.