Bonding refers to the special attachment that forms between a mother and father and their new baby. That bond is what sends parents rushing into their newborn's room in the middle of the night at the slightest whimper. It's also what makes parents want to instinctively care for and nurture their child.
Sometimes, the bond is immediate -- parents fall in love the instant they set eyes on their little "bundle of joy." Other times, bonding with the baby takes longer. Studies have found that about 20% of new moms and dads feel no real emotional attachment to their newborn in the hours after delivery. Sometimes, it takes weeks or even months to feel that attachment. If you haven't begun bonding with your baby, don't feel anxious or guilty -- it should come with time.
Why Do Parents Bond With Their Baby?
Bonding is an important human instinct that gives babies a sense of security and self-esteem. Bonding also helps parents feel connected to their newest family member. It begins to happen even before the baby is born -- when you feel the first little flutters in your belly or see your baby kick on the ultrasound screen. Your baby also starts getting to know you in the womb through the sound of your voice.
How Does Parent-Baby Bonding Happen?
Bonding happens in many ways. When you look at your newborn, touch their skin, feed them, and care for them, you're bonding. Rocking your baby to sleep or stroking their back can establish your new relationship and make them feel more comfortable. When you gaze at your newborn, they will look back at you. In mothers who are breastfeeding, baby's cries will stimulate the let-down of milk.
Why Am I Not Bonding With My Baby?
Although bonding can be immediate for some people, others stare at the tiny, bawling creature they have just brought home from the hospital and wonder, "Who is this person?" Don't feel guilty if you aren't bonding with your baby right from the start. Remember that the process sometimes takes time. As you care for your new baby, you may find that your attachment grows. It may not be until the first time your baby shoots you a toothless grin that you suddenly realize you have bonded.
Bonding can be especially difficult if you had a C-section or couldn't see your baby right after the birth. It can also be difficult if your baby was premature and had to spend time in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), or if you adopted the child. It may take longer to bond in these instances, but it eventually should happen.
Some mothers develop postpartum depression, which prevents them from completely bonding with their baby. The pain and exhaustion from childbirth -- especially from a difficult delivery -- can also get in the way of the bonding process.
Sometimes, a mother's or father's situation can affect their relationship with the new baby. Any of the following can interfere with your efforts at bonding:
- A childhood that lacked a positive parental role model
- A history of depression or mental illness
- A past pregnancy loss or loss of a child
- Lack of a social network
- Life stresses such as a difficult job, unemployment, or other financial troubles
- Marital problems or abuse
Are There Tips for Bonding With My Baby?
Here are some suggestions that will make it easier to bond with your baby:
- Ask to room-in with your baby at the hospital. Sleeping in the same room will give you more time to get to know one another.
- If your baby is premature, ask the hospital staff if you can touch and hold them. Just talking to your baby can help the two of you bond. Visit the NICU often to see your baby.
- Once you get home, spend as much time as possible with your baby by wearing them in a sling or carrier, rocking them on your lap, or singing them a song. Your voice and touch can be very comforting.
- Try giving your baby a gentle massage. Research has found that massage can not only improve the relationship between parent and baby, but it also can relieve stress in premature infants and ease postpartum depression in the mother. To learn how to massage your baby the right way, get a video, read a book, or take a class at a local hospital.
- Try making skin-to-skin contact with your newborn. This practice, called "kangaroo care," is often used in premature babies, but studies are finding that it's also calming to babies born full-term. It not only helps with bonding, but it also can improve your baby's ability to breastfeed.
Dads sometimes have more difficulty bonding with their new baby, especially because they miss out on the direct contact of breastfeeding. Here are some ways to enhance the father-baby bonding experience:
- Try to begin bonding with your baby before they are born. Put your hand on your partner's belly to feel the baby kick, go with them to the doctor for prenatal visits, and start thinking about the kind of father you want to be.
- Be in the delivery room during the baby's birth and take part in the delivery as much as possible.
- Help out with the baby's care: take over a few late-night feedings, give the baby a bath, change diapers, or sing the baby to sleep.
- Walk with the baby in a carrier close to your body.
If a few months have passed and you're worried that you still haven't bonded with your baby, talk to your pediatrician. They can determine whether a psychological or health issue may be the cause of the problem.