Bonding seems to happen one of two ways: you're instantly gaga for your baby; or you're a bit numb from labor, delivery, and the no-turning-back-now realization that you're finally a mom. You fumble through those early sleepless weeks and months of figuring each other out -- but that's okay. Bonding is a long, complicated process, and it unfolds a bit differently for every parent.
When Does Bonding Begin?
Much is made of bonding right after delivery, but the process begins even before birth, says Joanne Baum, PhD, author of Got the Baby: Where's the Manual?!? (Small Press Bookwatch). "You're already establishing a relationship as the baby becomes familiar with your voice," she adds. Getting an ultrasound can help strengthen the prenatal bond by making the baby seem more real to you.
And yes, ideally, it's best to get to know each other as soon as possible after birth. "Moms and babies are primed hormonally to need each other at that moment; it's the basis for survival, the start of the mothering instinct," says Jeannette Crenshaw, RN, a clinical education specialist at Presbyterian Hospital of Dallas. Studies have shown that skin-to-skin contact actually helps moms release endorphins -- narcotic-like hormones that help them feel calm and responsive to their babies. Melia Wilkinson, of Phoenix, Maryland, remembers an overwhelming surge of feelings when she saw her daughter Casey for the first time. "It was immediate for me," she says. "Everything got all warm and fuzzy around the edges, and I knew I was in love."
For Robin Nolan, of Raleigh, North Carolina, the bond didn't feel real until she left the hospital with her newborn son, Jamie. "I had to protect him from the rain when we were getting into the car," she says. "Right then, I realized he was mine and I had to shelter him -- that was the defining moment for me."
What If You Don't Bond at First Sight?
But what if you look at this red-faced, wrinkled little stranger -- who is bawling at the top of his lungs to boot -- and you don't feel overcome with love? Don't panic, says Nancy Mork Bakker, a mental health specialist at the Erikson Institute Fussy Baby Network in Chicago -- your reaction is completely normal too. "So many moms have this expectation that they will instantly fall in love with their baby," she says. "If that doesn't happen, they feel they've failed." For example, Vicki Glembocki, who wrote the memoir The Second Nine Months (Da Capo) about her extended bonding experience with daughter Blair, says, "I completely believed that a switch would flick on inside my body when I gave birth, but it didn't -- and I had a huge sense of guilt that I wasn't bonding right away." It took months for Glembocki to feel deeply connected to her fussy baby, who cried for hours every day. "There were some special moments, but overall I felt like I was living meltdown to meltdown," she says. "Little did I know that thousands of women have experienced similar feelings."
Bonding can even be a different experience with each baby. "With my second daughter, it took a while," admits Melissa Leonard, of Harrison, New York. "They were only 14 months apart, and I felt guilty taking time away from my first." What finally got them together? "She was a very congested baby, always sneezing and coughing like a little kitty. Taking care of her late at night and singing to her really bonded us."
How Can You Strengthen Your Bond with Baby?
"The more time mothers spend with their babies early on, the quicker mom and baby get to know each other, and the more confident they feel," Crenshaw says. In the early months, holding your infant skin to skin or "wearing" him in a sling or front carrier as much as possible is a wonderful way to help him make the transition from womb to outside world. When your baby is nestled against your chest, he can smell your scent and hear your heartbeat -- both important in the bonding process. Focusing on him without distraction is the best way to get to know his individual quirks, patterns, and style. Above all, trust your own intuition. No book or friend's advice can replace the wisdom and insights you develop as you bond with your unique baby.
How Can Dad Bond with Baby?
Of course, bonding isn't a girls-only club, but sometimes dads feel behind the eight ball. To strengthen the all-important father-baby connection:
- Pitch in. Soothing, burping, diapering, bathing -- these aren't just chores, they're wonderful opportunities to bond with your baby. Talk to your partner about divvying up the duties so you get some one-on-one time.
- Send Mom out for a walk. She can use a break, and nothing will make you feel closer to a newborn and confident around him more quickly than spending time alone. Even 10 minutes will help you connect.
- Find some special "you and me" activity. It could be the way you count her toes and then kiss them, sing a funny song, or create a nickname. The idea is that you create some moment that's reserved for just the two of you.
Originally published in the June 2008 issue of American Baby magazine.
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