The baby, bundled in a cotton sleeper, was having a rough morning. Thirty-one toddlers were jockeying to get a piece of him.
"Gentle and kind," said a woman in a blue smock. "Remember, you mustn't pick him up by yourself. Always wait for Mom or Dad." She passed the baby to a girl, who was rubbing her hands excitedly.
"Baby!" the girl confirmed, squeezing it.
She handed it off like a football to a boy in space boots. Chortling, the boy shoved a bottle at the baby's face, missed and poked an eye.
"Is that baby alive?" whispered an onlooker in overalls.
Luckily, he was not. But the cuddly doll was close enough for these children, who would soon be holding a new brother or sister and were taking Northridge Hospital Medical Center's Tiny Tots Tour. Presented monthly by hospital volunteers and a veteran obstetrics nurse, the free tour aims to prepare children--most between the ages of 3 and 5--for the experience of being a sibling.
Program leaders say the 9-year-old program is indicative of a growing trend toward family involvement in the birth experience. Over the past five years, group sibling tours have been instituted at several San Fernando Valley hospitals, including St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank, Humana Hospital-West Hills in Canoga Park and Holy Cross Medical Center in Mission Hills. Other hospitals with long-standing tour programs include Valley Presbyterian in Van Nuys and AMI Medical Center of Tarzana.
"There was nothing like it when I had children," said Marty Horton, 56, a volunteer and tour leader who lives in Granada Hills. "Parents now are more aware of emotional difficulties in accepting a new baby into the family. Everyone participates."
Accordingly, on one recent morning in a basement classroom in the hospital, a father arrived with his wife and daughter. A grandmother carried a 4-year-old.
A table laden with juice and cookies drew the toddlers to one corner of the room. From there, the children eyed each other's bomber jackets, hair ribbons and Mary Janes, but did not speak, except in whispers, to their mothers. Three-year-olds climbed chairs and munched cookies till their mothers whispered, "Look! Look at the lady. . . ."
"The lady," Grace Hutsell, an OB nurse at Northridge for 13 years, called for lights out and clicked on a slide projector.
"Here's how Mommy looks with her big tummy," she explained. "Here's how the baby looks inside. . . . And here they all are--the doctor, the baby, Mommy and Daddy--and everybody's happy!"
"Dad-dy!" someone cried.
"That's right," said Hutsell. "And here's big brother holding the baby. When you come see Mommy, we'll give you a picture of yourself with your new baby."
A moment of pleased silence greeted this offer before the slides resumed--showing black babies and white babies, boys and girls, babies in baths, in bassinets and--most importantly--babies being visited by siblings.
"For a small child, it's traumatic when Mom leaves," Hutsell said before the tour began. "They're relieved to know they can visit."
For many second-time mothers, said Hutsell, 64, of Reseda, a new baby means new worries--"especially about how to include the first child in the event."
Again and again throughout the tour, Hutsell, Horton and volunteer Andrea Rush, 41, of Northridge reminded the children how valuable they are, how much their parents--and the baby--needed their help in the months ahead.
And though the emphasis was positive, the liabilities of the change were cited too--primarily in a second slide show, "Big Kids and Babies," developed by Verdugo Hills Hospital.
Rivalry a Concern
"Sometimes," said the recorded voice of a child narrator, "it seems your mother spends too much time taking care of the new baby. But there will also be times she spends only with you."
Several mothers named sibling rivalry as a concern that had drawn them to the tour. During the session with the baby doll, some resentment was already evident in the roughness of some children and in the refusal of others to hold the doll unless their mothers were holding them.
Other mothers voiced fears about how children perceived hospitals.
Said Suzanne Miller, 33, a Canoga Park cosmetologist: "My son Joey's grandmother passed away a year ago. He relates going to the hospital with not coming out."
While giving youngsters a positive hospital experience, the tour also provided an objective source of answers to children's myriad questions about birth. As due dates approached, mothers said, questions intensified, often focusing on when and how babies would be born.
Linda Munguia, 26, of Pacoima said that she and her husband had explained birth to 3-year-old Cerena, but wanted assurance that she understood.
"When we were kids, they told us a bird brought a baby in a blanket," said Roger Munguia, 31. "Kids now want the truth."
But, given ample opportunities for questions, most of the children seemed content simply to take in the information--until the final segment of the tour, a visit to the fifth-floor newborn nursery.
In wide-eyed silence, trailing mothers who'd begun to chat among themselves, the children gathered before the nursery window where a smiling nurse held a tiny baby, hours old.
"What's that baby doing?" "Whose is it?" "Why's it in there?" "What's wrong with its tummy?" several voices asked at once.
Cerena Munguia was ready to talk. "My mommy's going upstairs," she said. "And the doctor will cut them, like this way." She touched her own stomach. "I know how to hold the bottle," she added, mentioning that the baby was going to sleep in her bed.
"It's a bit much for them to comprehend," said Horton. "But, afterward, when they get home, they'll ask more questions and talk about what they've seen till they start to understand it."
This assessment was confirmed by Joyce Nussbaum, a 32-year-old Woodland Hills physical therapist who took her son, David, now 7, to the Tiny Tots Tour three years ago. "After the tour, the baby was suddenly real to David," she said. "He understood that babies sleep a lot, cry a lot and they don't come home from the hospital ready to play."
David, who doesn't remember the tour, expressed ambivalence toward his brother--"Sometimes I like him, sometimes I don't"--but admitted that life is "more fun" with his brother in the picture.
The tour seemed to leave a strong impression of fun to come, with children sent home with balloons, pictures to color, badges to wear and the prospect of holding a baby--a real one--in their arms.