Bonding With Baby Before Birth

Making a connection with your unborn child can strengthen the bond you share, make you feel closer, and enrich you and your baby's lives.

Medically Reviewed by Cynthia Dennison Haines, MD
6 min read

Jeanne Berkowitz is expecting a baby in late January. In October, Jeanne and her husband went to Hawaii for a "babymoon." While there, Jeanne got a massage from a woman who works frequently with pregnant women.

"She told me that it was important to massage my belly often to introduce the baby to human touch and to the world outside the womb," Jeanne recalls, adding that she now massages the baby regularly, as does her husband. "We can often feel him respond by kicking back and changing positions."

Jeanne says she's not an expert on the benefits of prenatal massage, but reports that "it's fun for us, helps us (especially my husband) think of the baby as a real person, and I can't help but think it has to be good for the baby, too."

Jeanne might be interested to know that there is indeed science to back up her intuitive feelings. According to Carista Luminare-Rosen, PhD, author of Parenting Begins Before Conception: A Guide to Preparing Body, Mind, and Spirit for You and Your Future Child, research shows that babies in the womb have the emotional and intuitive capabilities to sense their parents' love. "Prenates can see, hear, feel, remember, taste, and think before birth," says Luminare-Rosen, founder and co-director of The Center for Creative Parenting in Marin and Sonoma counties, Calif.

Bonding (also known as attachment), says Marilee Hartling, RN, prenatal program manager at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, is how babies -- before and after birth -- learn what the world is all about. "It's also part of their personality development.

"When there's a healthy attachment between baby and parent," Hartling says, "the baby comes to believe that the world is a safe place. This is the beginning of the establishment of trust."

Some parents talk about feeling connected to their baby from the moment it's conceived, says Hartling. For others, that feeling grows as the baby develops. Fathers tend to begin bonding later than mothers, for obvious reasons, Hartling says, but they can help the process along by going to doctors' visits with the mother, looking at ultrasound pictures, and feeling the baby's kicks.

When Luminare-Rosen was pregnant, her husband made up a jingle to sing to their daughter, Kylea, before she was born. It was one way her husband could feel close to the baby before she was born, and even as an infant, the jingle would have a soothing effect on Kylea. "Babies can recognize music they've heard in the womb after they're born," says Luminare-Rosen.

Music provides a calm, harmonious environment in which the baby can grow in the womb, says Luminare-Rosen, who has also developed an audiotape called "Communing with Your Future Child."

That's not necessarily any music, however, she says. Studies have shown that babies -- who begin hearing by the 18th week of pregnancy -- prefer classical music (Mozart and Vivaldi are good standbys), or any music that mimics the mother's heart rate of 60 beats per minute (lullabies and New Age music, for example). Hard rock is not the way to go here, especially since the amniotic fluid amplifies the sound. (An occasional rock-out tune won't hurt the baby, says Luminare-Rosen, but a steady diet of it won't make your growing baby all that happy.)

"Even in the womb the baby can respond," says Luminare-Rosen. When the mother is frightened or upset, for example, the baby's heart rate can double. Stands to reason then, that when the mother is calm and relaxed, the baby will be, too.

Luminare-Rosen says that if you're pregnant you shouldn't worry if you occasionally get upset or angry. "All pregnant women get emotionally upset. But if you're chronically upset, this can have an effect on the child's personality."

By providing a peaceful environment in which you and your baby can bond before it's born, Luminare-Rosen says, your baby gets the message that it's wanted and loved. She suggests communicating those feelings of love by taking some time every day and sitting quietly, with your eyes closed, and telling your baby how welcome it is in your life.

"Even if you're only bonding to a concept at that point, and not the baby itself, you're establishing a connection that will continue after the baby is born," says Luminare-Rosen. "You're expressing your love."

When Luminare-Rosen was pregnant with her daughter, she kept a journal that not only documented her pregnancy, but also included letters to her daughter telling her about her hopes and her fears. "I read the journal to her now so that she knows how loved she has been, from the very beginning," says Luminare-Rosen.

In the prenatal bonding classes that Luminare-Rosen holds, she will play relaxing music, then have the parents (mostly moms-to-be) imagine that they are meeting their child for the first time. "Visualize your child," she suggest. "What is the image you have of the child?"

Luminare-Rosen says that you may see a picture of your child in your mind, you may hear a conversation between you and the baby. "Draw a picture of what you have seen, or write it in your journal," she says. "This will make the visualization that much more conscious."

Marilee Hartling has several tips of her own:

Talk to the baby. Say goodnight before you go to bed, good morning when you wake up, and talk to it throughout the day. "Newborns know their mom's voice after birth," she says. "That's the voice they will turn to."

Feel the baby. Place your hands on your abdomen and rest your hands quietly, feeling the baby kick, or gently massaging the baby. You can even play games with the baby, says Hartling. Press lightly on your abdomen and you'll feel the baby kick back, she says.

On a more serious note, Hartling says that at Cedars-Sinai, more attention is being paid to moms who are suffering from depression or have suffered from postpartum depression in the past (if you have, you're more likely to experience it again). In these cases, medication may be prescribed for the pregnant mom, says Hartling, because it's difficult to bond with your baby when you're depressed.

One of the best ways you can bond with your baby, says Thomas Ivester, MD, clinical instructor in maternal-fetal medicine at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis, is by having an ultrasound.

"Bonding during pregnancy gives a mom a better sense of responsibility in caring for herself, and by extension, the baby," he says. "When you can actually see the baby, that increases the feeling that the baby actually exists."

Recent advances in technology have made ultrasounds even more valuable tools, says Ivester. For most of the last 25 years, ultrasound images were available only in two dimensions. In recent years, 3-D ultrasound has been developed. At first, those 3-D pictures took a "painfully" long time to develop, says Ivester, and were produced as still images that were difficult to interpret.

The latest advances in 3-D technology, however, mean that you can now see moving pictures of the developing fetus. "You can actually see the baby's chubby cheeks ... see him sucking his thumb, yawning, turning over," says Ivester. "It's fantastic."

Most 3-D ultrasounds are only being performed in major medical centers at the moment, but parents-to-be are calling from "hours away" to be able to have one done, says Ivester.

"The reaction we get from moms and dads is phenomenal," he says. "They're stunned. All of a sudden, their baby is real."