You might have wonderful childhood memories of having a family pet.  Pets can be great source of happiness at this time in your child's life while promoting healthy brains development. By assigning your child with chores to help care for the pet, like feeding and cleaning, he will experience many character building lessons, like learning responsibility and respect.  In addition, research shows that children who own pets have better school attendance, and enhanced social and academic skills.


Having a pet can help develop empathy, the root of all character development. As your child learns to think about the needs of her pet, she'll think about the needs of others.  From empathy stems other character traits, such as respect, responsibility, manners, honesty, etc.  Bringing a pet into the family is not a decision that should be made lightly.  With benefits come many challenges, outlined below.  Yet, in the long run, challenges are overshadowed by all the ways a pet that can help build your child's brain.

Brain Science for Your Baby

In adults, there are a number of studies that find that pets improve health.  It hasn't been clear exactly why having a pet improves health.  It may be because pets can decrease stress!  How might having a dog relate to stress?  A recent study (Polheber and Matchock, 2013) looked at whether a dog could change the heart rate and stress hormone (cortisol) response during a stressful situation.  They used college students as participants and asked them to relax in the study lab for 40 minutes.  Approximately 1 /3 of the students were asked to sit alone quietly, 1/3 of the students were asked to sit and speak with a good friend who came along, and 1/3 of the students were introduced to (and allowed to pet) a trained therapy dog.  After 40 minutes, a cortisol sample was obtained from each participant (student).  The participants were then asked to imagine they were in an interview for a job that they really wanted, and that they had to convince the interviewer that they were the best candidate.  They then had to stand and give their presentation (stressful!).  1/3 of the students had to do this by themselves with no social support, 1/3 had the friend that they brought with them, and 1/3 were allowed to have the dog in the room.  Cortisol levels were measured two more times.  Participants who were allowed to have the dog with them during the stressful interview test were found to have lower cortisol than the participants who had nobody with them AND the participants who had a friend with them.  The authors propose that having pets directly affects the stress response.  Decreasing stress hormones is good for both body and brain!


Cortisol isn't the only hormone important to the stress response.  Increasing some hormones can decrease stress.  Oxytocin is a hormone that that is made in the brain and that seems to reinforce feelings of safety and trust.  Oxytocin seems to be one of the most important hormones for stress relief, especially in social settings.  Oxytocin has been shown to increase when pet dogs gaze at their owners. 


In some places, schools are using dogs to help students manage stress.  More on this (and a little bit more on oxytocin 

A Baby Buffer Prescription for Your Baby
Walking or playing with a pet is great ways for both the dog and the child to get exercise.

Pets can divert your child's attention away from computer games and television, which are not recommended at this stage of brain development.


Going to veterinarian appointments can help teach children about healthy habits.


Reading and learning with your child about their pet can help improve learning skills.








A Baby Buffer Prescription for You  


If you are getting your child a pet to teach responsibility, remember that in reality you'll be the pet's main caregiver.


Always supervise your child around the pet.


Teach your child respect by roll modeling gentle behavior with the pet, not hitting or screaming at the pet.   


Prepare yourself and the family for the time and commitment it takes to care and train the pet.  It may make more sense to get a fish now and a dog or cat later.


Always practice good hygiene with pets, by making sure that children wash their hands after touching the pet, picking up where the pet goes to the bathroom, bathing the pet, etc.

What Your Baby Can Do - Developmental Milestones 


Children in this age range are moving away from their "baby" stage and toward the greater world that they have never been physically able to explore before. Talking, walking and asserting their independence are the hallmarks of this stage, developmentally. Children need to explore...we just need to help them do so safely!


Gene's Research Tip

There's an old saying about curiosity and cats.  But then, cats also always land on their feet and have 9 Lives.  So how about other curious creatures... like your infants and toddlers?  Today's case-in-point is baby gate injuries.  A new study from Nationwide Children's Hospital looked at injuries associated with baby gates over a 20 year period.  The injuries quadrupled in number, with 5 kids an hour having an associated injury by the end of the study.  More than 60% were younger than 2 years of age.  Most injuries occurred from falls down stairs after a gate collapsed or was left open. Bumps and bruises accounted for a third of injuries, while cuts accounted for, also, about a third of the injuries.  But the more serious injury type, the traumatic brain injuries which include concussions and brain bleeds, were seen in 16%. 


The authors gave several suggestions for parents and grandparents. 

"Like" us on Facebook! 

 Sign up for Baby Buffer emails