Bonding with your baby
|What is Bonding?
Bonding means having strong feelings of love and protectiveness for your baby.
Bonding can begin during pregnancy, when mums and dads stroke the mother's stomach, feel for movement, imagine what their baby will be like and talk to her.
Many people imagine that it is 'normal' for a mother to fall in love with their baby at first sight. Some women do have this experience, but many do not, and go on to form a strong loving attachment to their baby.
Immediate bonding is more likely to happen if there has been a straightforward delivery and if the baby is put on the mother's chest straight after birth. These experiences help lead to the release of the hormone oxytocin, which facilitates bonding.
|There is nothing abnormal in not falling in love with your baby immediately. Sometimes mothers feel guilty, worried or cheated if they have not felt this way. Try not to give yourself a hard time or blame the baby if you don't bond straight away. You have lots of opportunity for building a loving bond.
Bonding is not a one-off opportunity. The experience of touching, holding, feeding, looking at and caring for your baby, also release the hormones that build bonding.
Bonding builds up over the first few days, weeks, months and years as you and your baby get to know each other and as your confidence in handling them grows. The process of bonding continues into adulthood.
There are many factors that can delay the process of bonding. For example: If you have been traumatised by the birth, had a Caesarean delivery under anaesthetic, are separated from your baby after birth; had mixed feelings about having a baby, if your relationship is under strain or you feel unsupported, or if have adopted or child... Bonding may be delayed, but you can still bond just as strongly with your baby.
After months of imagining what your baby will be like, your actual baby is a little stranger whom you have to get to know.
Why is it important for me to bond with my baby?
- Your baby is completely helpless and dependent on you for their survival. She needs you to want to care for her.
- Bonding stimulates the loving feelings that make you want to care for and protect your baby. Bonding with your baby can make you feel waves of warm, joyful and loving feelings towards them.
- This helps you to keep going and put up with the difficult challenges and demands of parenting, such as exhaustion, feelings of helplessness about what you're supposed to do, the crying, the feeding...and so on.
- If you do not feel bonded with your baby, caring for them feels harder and less rewarding.
- The paediatrician and psychoanalyst DW Winnicott, described how mothers become tend to become intensely interested in their baby during the first few weeks of life and less interested in the rest of the world. He called this stage: 'primary maternal pre-occupation'. The mother feels a strong urge to respond to the baby's cries and signals and to feel a desire to keep touching, stroking, smiling at, kissing, talking to or smelling their baby. This makes the baby feel calmer and less helpless.
- Baby's are born as social beings. They seek out human interaction with people who will care for them. They need this, not only to physically survive, but in order to develop: socially, emotionally and intellectually.
- Babies are primed to seek out their mothers. Babies start to recognise their mother's voice when they are still inside you. After birth, babies recognise and show a preference for their mother's voice, Babies also remember the smell of the amniotic fluid in the womb and will search out the smell of the mother's breast. This is also true of bottle fed babies. This 'imprinting' assists bonding, but is not the same as bonding, which is about making a social relationship.
Why is it important for my baby to bond and become attached to me?
- Bonding is a complex dance between the infant and the caregiver that develops over time. Babies bond with their caregivers. The person or people they bond with, who are usually their mother and/or father, is known as an 'attachment figure'. Babies can become attached to a small number of regular caregivers, but not a large or changing number of people.
- For the first few months, babies tend to respond to anyone who cares for them sensitively and makes them feel safe. By about 7 months to two years, babies become much more discriminating. They quickly become fretful if they are separated from their attachment figure. This is normal. The child begins to use the safe attachment figure as a secure base from which to explore the world and gradually develops confidence that the person they love and need can be separated from for short periods, because they can be relied on to return.
- How parents respond to their children leads to the development of 'working models' of what to expect in the world, which guide the child's thoughts, feelings and expectations in future relationships.
- When babies and children develop a 'secure attachment' they have been shown to grow up to feel better about themselves and others, to make better relationships, to learn more easily, to be calmer and better adjusted , throughout their lives.
- It is extremely important for a baby's long-term emotional, social and intellectual wellbeing and development, that the care they receive is consistent, predictable, tender and loving and is carefully 'attuned' to the baby's feelings and needs.
- When babies cries are quickly responded to; if they are picked up and calmly held, rocked and soothed through the sing-song of your reassuring voice; when they are played with, stroked, smiled at , spoken to, and their needs and communications are thought about and 'contained' by caregivers, the baby will feel calmer and safer and learn to feel that they are loved and therefore loveable.
- Children become more anxious and 'insecurely attached', if the caregiver's reactions to the baby's cries and communications are patchy, very anxious, harsh or frightening, neglectful, or follow the parent's needs rather than following the baby's lead.
- Insecurely attached children are more likely to have problems throughout their lives. They are more likely to feel anxious, or become angry and bullying, and to have more difficulty making good relationships.
- Babies will not grow up to remember their earliest experiences and relationships, but neither are they forgotten. Our earliest experiences shape the development of our brains and in turn, affect how we end up behaving and relating as adults and as parents ourselves.
- Despite parents' best intentions, it can sometimes be difficult to relate to your baby in a way that helps to build a secure attachment. This is particularly true if your own experiences of being parented have been damaging. Getting help to make sense of your own early experiences through counselling or therapy may help you to not repeat patterns with your own children.
- The good news is, that we do not have to be perfect... in fact, there is no such thing as a perfect parent. We all get things wrong and a gradual lack of attunement to a baby is also a helpful part of their development. We only need to be a 'good enough parent'... and most parents are.
Does it matter if fathers bond with their babies?
Fathers play very important roles for babies. They are additional caregivers for a baby to rely on and can help build and protect the new family. If a mum is feeling stressed and overwhelmed, being calmly held by dad may help a fretful baby calm down.
Supporting a mother helps build the parental relationship during the difficult transition from being partners to parents.
Becoming a father stirs up very strong, deep and mixed feelings. This is normal.
Whilst some fathers bond and fall in love at first sight with their baby, very many do not and the process of bonding often takes place over a longer time frame.
Many fathers feel lost, anxious, left out and lack confidence in their handling of a baby. Many feel their partners have lost interest in them and only care about the baby. This can be very painful and difficult. Try to hang on in there. Mothers do tend to be very preoccupied with their baby for the first few months. If you can stay involved and supportive, that may also help you.
Fathers are also vulnerable to experiencing postnatal depression. Even if you feel you love your baby and wanted them. If you are feeling low, stressed, irritable or anxious …speak to your partner, to friends or family, or ask your GP to refer you for counselling.
Being actively involved with a pregnant partner and sharing in the early life of your baby, releases hormones in men that help fathers bond with their infant.
As with mothers, bonding with your baby is built through the cuddling, handling and caring for your baby. Involved fathers release a range of hormones (oxytocin, prolactin, vasopressin ) that make them feel more loving, more protective, less aggressive, calmer and more bonded with their baby and partner. Contact with your baby, particularly touch and gaze, release opiods that create feelings of elation and wellbeing.
Father's offer a different kind of care giving from mothers, a different perspective on the world and an opportunity to build a separate attached relationship. This is important for a baby.
What can I do to bond more to my baby?
Cuddling: touching and stroking a baby, particularly skin-to-skin, releases hormones oxytocin and opiods in both mums, dads and in your baby, that develop bonding, and make everyone feel calmer and happier.
Gaze: looking into your baby's eyes, smiling, cooing, making bright, lively facial expressions also build bonds between parents and babies. Your eyes are a mirror for your baby. When you look smiling and loving, they feel loved and loveable.
Voice: your baby will express his needs and feelings through his cries and gurgles. You also communicate through the singsong of your voice. Your reassuring voice, cooing, repetition, singing, 'conversations' with your baby, all help build a loving bond between you.
Listening and responding to your baby's cues: her facial expressions, moves, cries, gurgles all help you to understand her and get to know her and make her feel cared for and understood.
Smell: smelling your baby helps you feel attached to them. Babies also use their sense of smell to identify their mother and caregivers and enjoy your natural body aroma.
Bathing, holding, feeding, rocking, talking to, singing to, reading to, changing, kissing and cuddling.... these are all things that help mothers, fathers and babies build loving relationships with each other.
Why am I not bonding with my baby?
Lots of things can interfere with the gradual development of bonding with your baby.
- A difficult or traumatic delivery or Caesarean under general anaesthetic
- Separation from your baby after birth
- Lack of practical and emotional support
- Feeling overwhelmed or exhausted
- Having very mixed feelings about your baby (Everyone has some mixed feelings about having a baby)
- You or your baby having health problems
- Poor experiences of having been parented yourself
- Not having recovered from bereavements, including miscarriages, stillbirths or death of other children.
- Adopting a child whom you have to get to know
- Being under stress through other pressures: money, housing, work, migration, forced separation from your family, war, difficult relationships with family and in-laws etc
- Suffering from postnatal depression
Should I be worried that I am not bonding with my baby?
- Worrying that you are not bonding with your baby may cause you to feel stressed and upset and may cause more problems for you and the baby than the lack of bonding – so don't be too hard on yourself. Building up a loving relationship takes time.
- If after several weeks you are still not feeling warm, loving and protective emotions for your baby, it is worth taking seriously and speaking to your GP or Health visitor. Do not get fobbed off or told it's nothing!
- If you feel withdrawn, lack interest in your baby, feel overwhelmed, are avoiding contact with your baby, feel anxious and lack confidence in your handling of the baby, feel angry and resentful towards your baby, or feel low and miserable...ask for help.
- If you lack self-confidence or have had very mixed feelings about the baby, you may mis-read your baby's messages. For example, if your baby is crying a lot, is hard to settle or difficult to feed, or settles more easily with others, you may imagine the baby doesn't like you, or hates you or is deliberately trying to get at you. Your baby is primed to love and need you. If she seems hard to manage, she may be reacting to your stress by being more stressed herself. You may be suffering from postnatal depression and you should ask for help.
- If you are feeling really disconnected from your baby, if you find yourself feeling really angry with them or having fantasies of killing them or thinking that you wouldn't mind if they or you were to die; if you are neglecting your baby or shouting at them, shaking them or hurting them, you are probably suffering from postnatal depression and you urgently need to go to your GP and ask for professional help.
There is a lot of pressure on parents to show they adore their babies. If you are struggling with your feelings and worried that you are not bonding – talk to your partner, friends, relatives and other mothers, who you think may be able to offer support and understanding. You may well be surprised how many other parents admit to having struggled with bonding.
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