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Bonding with Your Baby

Up close of baby's face over mom's shoulder

"You've got to take her back, I'm going to get sick," weren't the loving first words Anne Danforth, of Richmond, Virginia, envisioned saying about her firstborn, Emma. "I always imagined they'd hand me my baby and I'd have this immediate bond," she says. Instead, "I didn't even want the baby in the room," says Danforth, who was nauseated from drugs given to ease labor, exhausted, and overwhelmed. Emma's dad, on the other hand, was a natural from the get-go. "I remember my husband holding Emma and gazing into her sparkly greenish-brown eyes that first day. He had this instant bond as I watched them, thinking, What's wrong with me? I don't feel this way."

It wasn't until after their first week home that things began to change. "My husband had gone back to work, and all the visitors were gone. Once I got a chance to really spend time with her, I realized I was falling in love." That bond deepened for Danforth over the coming weeks, especially as she fed and bathed her daughter and saw Emma's first smile. Three-and-a-half years later, "I'm in awe of her and the amazing little person that's emerging," says Danforth.

Just how common is Danforth's delayed bonding response? Much more than you might think -- or moms want to admit. "Having a baby is an exhausting experience," says Ari Brown, MD, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics and coauthor of Baby 411 (Windsor Peak). "New moms have to cope with sleep deprivation, physical trauma from delivery, and a hormonal roller coaster." What's more, new moms have demanding feeding schedules to adapt to as well as other new-mom stresses. "It's no wonder that moms may have trouble relaxing and enjoying their newborns!" says Dr. Brown.

As in Danforth's case, the time you spend caring for your baby helps create chemistry and cements your bond. "The spell that makes parents think they have the most beautiful baby in the world grows stronger with each experience they share," says Dr. Brown. And don't worry: Your delayed bonding response isn't going to irreparably harm your baby. In fact, "bonding is a long, slow process for babies, too," says Josef Burton, MD, a New Milford, Connecticut-based pediatrician. Your attachment for each other will grow over the days and weeks with each diaper change, feeding, and rocking, and as your baby realizes she can count on you more than anyone else in the world. In the meantime, consider these tips to help you get connected.

5 Ideas for Bonding

1. Try kangaroo care. A stressful situation -- such as an unplanned c-section or nursing difficulties -- may contribute to feelings of being disconnected from your baby. Kangaroo care -- holding a baby who is clad only in a diaper next to your bare breast -- can help moms and babies bond.

Jennifer Pote, of New Preston, Connecticut, was introduced to this skin-to-skin contact early on after her son was rushed to another hospital for a respiratory problem at birth. "It was 36 hours until I could hold him," says Pote. "I didn't feel bonded to him right away." When they were eventually reunited, the neonatal intensive care unit suggested she try kangaroo care, which helped relieve tension in Pote and her son.

"When babies are sick, parents bond differently," says Krystyna Toczylowski, RN, of Hackensack Medical Center, in Hackensack, New Jersey. "Parents don't feel like real parents because the medical community is taking care of these babies," she says. Research rallies behind kangaroo care: A 2005 Swedish study shows skin-to-skin contact significantly increases one's success with bonding while also helping with breastfeeding and reducing stress.

Well babies, too, can benefit from kangaroo care. Try it if your baby is having trouble nursing or sleeping or is irritable. It takes 15 minutes for babies to begin reaping the benefits.

2. Consider the breast choice. "Providing food for another person is a fundamental way of showing love and affection," says Molly Kimball, RD, a nutritionist at Ochsner Clinic's Elmwood Fitness Center, in New Orleans, Louisiana. According to a recent Canadian study, breastfeeding enhances bonding between mother and infant. It is an opportunity for the two of you to sit quietly together, touching and snuggling for 20 minutes 8 to 12 times a day. "I found breastfeeding helped me with bonding," says Kathryn Kelleher, of Washingtonville, New York, mother to Ryan, 2. "I had the ability to nourish and soothe my baby, and that gave me confidence and a connection to him that no one else had."

The practice helps with bonding on a physiological level too. "Breastfeeding stimulates hormones in the mother that facilitate that love affair or bond," says Dr. Brown. Oxytocin, known as the "bonding hormone" or "mothering hormone," together with prolactin, help create a feeling of calmness and an intense need to be with the baby in nursing mothers. "The presence of these hormones is higher in moms who breastfeed exclusively," says Austin, Texas-based lactation consultant Linda Hill, RN. But if breastfeeding doesn't work for you, rest easy: "Newborns bond with adults who they can trust to take care of them," says Dr. Brown.

3. Stick together. A 2005 study from the department of pediatrics at the Rainbow Babies & Children's Hospital, in Cleveland, Ohio, recommends moms and babies stay together in the first hours and days after delivery as much as possible -- even if Mom doesn't feel a connection with the baby. "Rooming in at the hospital is certainly one way to encourage bonding," says Dr. Brown.

Going home from the hospital marks the opportunity to make your baby part of your world. Try bunking there too. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends having your baby sleep in your room in a bassinet or crib to help you pick up on her cues sooner. The AAP advises against letting baby sleep in your bed, which is a leading factor in sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

4. Get kneady. "Bonding becomes stronger as love is exchanged and communicated through touch," says Elaine Stillerman, a massage therapist and author of Prenatal Massage (Mosby, 2006). You start to understand your baby's individual sounds and feelings, what she likes and what feels uncomfortable, she says. Mom and Dad can both enjoy this form of bonding. Try massaging baby's head, feet, and back to find what soothes your infant.

Warm a few drops of baby lotion or oil by rubbing it between your hands, and then employ some gentle, rhythmic strokes and caresses. Even a brief massage session -- during which your baby looks at you and is soothed by your touch -- can help you feel more confident and connected. "When my kids are sitting next to me on the couch, I'll lightly massage their upper earlobes," says Kevin Daley, of East Hampton, Connecticut. "It's soothing for them, and it's a bonding moment."

5. Yield left. Whether Mom and Dad are righties or southpaws, studies indicate that they have a universal preference to cradle infants on their left side -- over the heart. In fact, a recent study from the University of Provence, France, found that a whopping 66 percent of caregivers followed this trend. Research suggests the parents' heartbeat helps soothe a baby on the left side, while the right side arouses, excites, and gets the baby's attention. Whether on your left or right, the little bundle cradled in your arms will soon be able to read rapture written all over your face. Just you wait and see.

Three's a crowd, and many new dads may feel like a third wheel after baby comes home from the hospital. "Dad can feel like an aside," says Josef Burton, MD, who practices in New Milford, Connecticut. And unless he had younger siblings or babysat for newborns as a teen, a first-time father is not usually confident about being in charge of a baby right away.

While it's different for every father, an initial feeling of wonderment, pride, and protection follows baby's birth. And when a baby starts to gain size, strength, and head control, a father can start interacting in a way that's most comfortable for him. "Dad's approach is different: bigger, rougher, tougher. They let babies experience more and aren't as warm and cuddly," says Dr. Burton. And that's a good thing -- babies benefit from both Mom's and Dad's styles.

For a father to feel more like a member of the team, give him the reins. Take a few hours off to go shopping or visit a friend. "Tell him, 'You're in charge.' Let him and the baby figure it out without someone's looking over his shoulder," says Dr. Burton. And you'll score some much needed "me time" while they get their groove.

But one thing's for sure: Once baby sees Dad as Mr. Fun, don't be surprised if he scores the first smiles and belly laughs. Dad will feel mighty special.

You have everything in the world to be thankful for, but you feel like hiding under the covers. How do you know whether it's simply new-mom fatigue -- or a sign of postpartum depression?

"Depression can cause people to 'shut down' emotionally, so it's very difficult to feel strongly bonded toward your baby," says Margaret Howard, PhD, director of Postpartum Disorders Day Hospital, Women & Infants Hospital of Rhode Island, in Providence. On the other hand, "it's very common for new moms to experience the 'baby blues,' which is characterized by mood swings, tearfulness, emotional sensitivity, irritability, and feeling nervous and overwhelmed," says Howard.

If the blues persist beyond two weeks, it may signal the onset of postpartum depression. Some other clues that you may need medical attention: a loss of pleasure from once-loved activities, feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness, and low energy and motivation. In addition, you may experience sleep problems, feelings of guilt, and appetite disturbances.

Left untreated, postpartum depression may lead to thoughts of hurting yourself or your baby. If you are feeling depressed, contact your ob-gyn or a mental-health provider specializing in postpartum depression. For more information, check out postpartum.net or depressionafterdelivery.com.

Copyright © 2007. Used with permission from the March 2006 issue of American Baby magazine.

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