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Bonding: It's Not Always Instant

  • Connie Matthiessen
  • Posted March 11, 2013

If you find that you're not immediately overwhelmed with love with your newborn, don't worry. Like any other emotional relationship, developing a connection with your child can take time. Similarly, as with any other relationship, this one will have its own unique rhythms and pace of development. The timing will depend upon you and your baby; your experience of childbirth and your life circumstances have a lot to do with it as well.

What is bonding?

Bonding is the attachment that develops between a new parent and an infant. Studies abound on the importance of bonding for a child's long-term emotional health. In some cases, these findings have been interpreted to mean that if bonding doesn't happen in the first hours after birth, then it will never happen at all. Such misinterpretations have caused alarm, particularly for new parents who have been prevented from spending the first hours with their child because of medical emergencies or other health concerns.

Although it is true that researchers have identified a "sensitive period" right after birth when newborns and mothers seem to be particularly tuned in to each other, this doesn't mean that bonding cannot happen or will be any weaker if that window is missed. Parents who adopt an older child may face challenges forming a strong bond with their children at first. But over time, it's possible to forge relationships as strong as those of birth parents who were with their children from the beginning.

For some parents and newborns, bonding seems to happen right away: When they see their baby for the first time, there is a flash of recognition, as if someone they've always longed for has just stepped into the room.

But if your first encounters with your baby are less than magical, don't be ashamed or disappointed. Labor and childbirth take a tremendous toll, as do the extreme hormone swings you are still experiencing in the aftermath of your baby's birth. You are probably exhausted, sore, and emotionally fragile -- as you should be. It is perfectly normal if the sight of your red-faced, squalling little bundle triggers as much fear, anxiety, or even emotional numbness as it does maternal love.

What you can do to promote bonding

Don't worry: Maternal love will develop as you nurture your child in the days and months ahead. You can also take steps to make the transition as easy as possible.

Take care of yourself. If you want to go to sleep immediately after you give birth, go ahead. After you bring your newborn home, remember that your first task is to heal and get back on your feet. Let others -- your partner, friends, and relatives -- help out as much as possible while you rest. Order meals to be delivered, let the laundry pile up, and nap when the baby naps. You'll have time to catch up with everything when you are back on your feet.

If you are a single mother or your husband has to go right back to work, consider hiring someone to do the housekeeping, shopping, and other chores in the first few weeks or months, so you can spend most of your time with your newborn. This may seem like a luxury, but it can be well worth the expense.

Take care of your baby. Savor these first fleeting days of your child's life, and focus on getting to know each other. Stay in your pajamas all day if you feel like it, and go back to bed after breakfast. Cuddle and touch your baby, and stare into her eyes. Get to know her smell; memorize the size of her hand against yours. Get a book on infant massage, and practice with your infant. Talk, sing, and read to your baby, and respond when she cries. Any affectionate or interactive behaviors you do with your child will help you bond with her.

Babies respond well to eye contact and to voices. They can follow moving objects that are eight to 10 inches away with their eyes, and may try to copy the sounds that you make. Other activities you can do with your baby to increase bonding include rocking the baby to sleep and letting him touch you on the face, hair, and hands -- these different shapes and textures can be intriguing to a newborn.

Take care of your relationship. Don't forget about your partner in these hectic and exhausting early days. Talk over your memories of the birth and its aftermath, look at baby photos together, and record your experiences in a birth journal that you can both add to as your child grows. Talk to your partner about your fears and apprehensions -- chances are that both of you share some of them. Tell your partner how to help you, and do what you can to offer him or her support. Encourage your partner to develop a relationship with the baby, and appreciate -- don't criticize -- the differences in approach. Your primary relationship will help sustain you through the challenges and hurdles to come.

For the partner who did not deliver the baby, bonding often takes more time -- which is understandable. You have had the whole pregnancy to feel and experience your baby, and it may not truly become real to your spouse until he holds the new baby in his arms. And there's still another reason to take care of your relationship: It might help your partner be a better parent. Some researchers believe that intimate contact and communication between partners may bring on hormonal changes that encourage a father to nurture his children.

If you cannot take your child home because he was born prematurely, this doesn't mean that you cannot begin to develop a relationship. Talk to your baby's doctor and to the hospital staff about your concerns. Most hospitals now accommodate and involve parents right from the start, and encourage them to touch and hold newborns as soon as it is safe to do so.

If your child is born with birth defects or special needs, give yourself time to get used to this fact and to adjust your expectations to fit your new reality. Find out as much about your child's condition as you can, and ask your physician or specialists for referrals to parent support groups.

Partners and bonding

Bonding is also important for fathers and partners, even though they didn't carry the child or endure hours of labor.

Several fascinating new studies indicate that men may be as biologically programmed for parenthood as women are. Researchers have found that during a partner's pregnancy an expectant father undergoes biological changes -- including dramatic hormonal shifts -- that seem to equip them for parenting. Researchers found that testosterone levels fell 33 percent in fathers for the first three weeks after their child was born.

In any case, you've supported your partner through her pregnancy, and you are a key part of your new family unit. While you are showering attention on your partner and new baby, don't forget to take care of yourself as well. Make sure you are getting enough rest, and join your partner in napping when the baby naps. Don't be surprised if you feel disoriented and frightened. Your life has gone through a dramatic change, and you are likely to feel as overwhelmed as you do overjoyed.

Because you haven't had the physical experience of carrying the baby in your body, giving birth, or breastfeeding, it may take a little longer for you to develop a connection with your new child. Hold the baby as soon as you can, and participate in the child's care right from the start. In fact, you can take the lead on bathing and diapering the baby -- as well as getting up for midnight feedings -- while your partner gets back on her feet.

Caring for your newborn may not feel natural at first, but if you start early, you and your child will learn together. Many fathers find that infant massage is an excellent way to soothe and get to know their new baby.

When to seek help

If your feelings -- or lack of feelings -- for your infant disturb you, talk to your physician or seek counseling. Most women experience the "baby blues" after giving birth, but if the melancholy persists for more than two weeks, or if you find that your are overwhelmed by sadness, anger, or feelings of hopelessness, you may be suffering from postpartum depression and need help from a doctor or counselor.

With rest and time, you'll fall head over heels for your baby -- and vice versa.

References

American Academy of Pediatrics. Caring for Your Baby and Young Child: Birth to Age 5, Bantam

American Academy of Pediatrics. Caring for Your Baby and Young Child: Birth to Age 5, Bantam

Sears, William MD. What Attachment Parenting Is -- The 7 Baby B's. AskDrSears.com. http://www.askdrsears.com/html/10/t130300.asp

Sears, William MD, Bonding With Your Newborn. Attachment Parenting International http://www.attachmentparenting.org/artbonding.shtml

D'Alessandro, Donna MD and Huth, Lindsay BA. Interacting With Your Newborn. Virtual Children's Hospital -- University of Iowa. http://www.vh.org/pediatric/patient/pediatrics/cqqa/interactingwithnewborn.html

Abrams, Douglas Carlton. Father Nature: The Making of a Modern Dad. Psychology Today. Mar/Apr 2002.

National Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families. Adoptive Parents and Their Babies: Minimizing the Risks to Emotional Development in the First Three Years. http://www.zerotothree.org/adoptive.html

Pedrosa, Gil F, and Rupprecht, R. Current aspects of attachment theory and development psychology as well as neurobiological aspects in psychiatric and psychomatic disorders. Der Nervenarzt. Nov. 2003. 74(11):965-71.

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