After nine months of anticipation and 24 hours of labor, Stephanie Charlot finally got to hold her new daughter, Brianna. It wasn't the awesome moment she'd expected. "On TV you see a new mother start to cry and say, 'Oh, she's so beautiful!'" says the Lansing, Michigan, mother of two. "I was excited, but I didn't have that intense feeling at first."
While Hallmark cards and movies of the week have conditioned us to expect love at first sight, it can take weeks or months to bond with your baby. A variety of factors can interfere with that love connection, from hormonal changes (a woman's estrogen and progesterone levels drop by about 90 percent in the first three days after birth) to exhaustion to an overwhelming sense of responsibility.
Over time, as you become familiar with your infant and gain confidence in your ability to meet her needs, the nurturing instinct and parental passion will develop naturally. Still, there are ways to speed up the process, starting from the moment your little one arrives.
Stick Together From the StartThe hours following childbirth offer relief (and exhaustion) for new moms. They also provide a precious window of opportunity to get acquainted with your newborn. Studies by John Kennell, M.D., a behavioral pediatrician at Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital, in Cleveland, showed that women who interacted with their babies for at least an hour right after delivery were more responsive to their infants a month later than those whose babies spent that time in the nursery.
Eliminate DistractionsIt's easy to get overwhelmed by well-wishers once you're home from the hospital. So take the phone off the hook, ask family and friends not to drop by for a few days, ignore all chores, and focus completely on your baby. And rest assured: The little things you do automatically -- caressing your baby, picking him up when he cries, rocking him, singing to him, changing him -- will strengthen your feelings for your child without your even realizing it.
Let Nature Take Its CourseA baby is preprogrammed to make her parents respond. Her capacity to grasp your finger (from birth) or to smile at you (after a few weeks) are inherent behaviors to win your affection. All you need to do is pay attention and let the magic happen. "When you see your baby turning his head at the sound of your voice, it stirs emotions within you," says Penny Glass, Ph.D., director of the Child Development Program at Children's National Medical Center, in Washington, D.C.
The Food ConnectionMealtime is one of the best bonding opportunities for moms. Find a quiet spot to feed your baby, and establish frequent eye contact as she nurses. And if she coos, coo back -- it's one of her primary forms of communication.
If your attachment problems are related to nursing, contact a lactation consultant. Your hospital can provide a recommendation, or you can visit the International Lactation Consultant Association's site at www.icla.org.
Give It TimeNumerous factors can delay a mother's feelings of affection. It could be her baby's temperament: Some newborns simply aren't cuddly, or they possess a low sensory threshold that makes them less able to handle the intensity of eye contact. And it may be more difficult for a mom to truly attach to a colicky or fussy infant who won't be soothed. Residual pain from a C-section or a difficult birth, nursing problems, and sleep deprivation can also be barriers to bonding. But it's important not to get discouraged -- or to put pressure on yourself. "When you try to rush things, it only makes it harder to connect," Dr. Glass says.
Still feeling detached after two months? You could be suffering from postpartum depression. The nonprofit group Depression After Delivery (www.depressionafterdelivery.com) offers telephone support services and can refer you to a mental-health professional. Don't wait too long: Studies indicate an insecure bond in the early months can affect your baby's peer relationships throughout childhood.
Imagine trying to connect with a newborn who's whisked away after delivery, hooked up to machines, and placed in an incubator. That's what parents of preemies face. "It can be terrifying," says Darelle Robbins, a nurse in the neonatal intensive-care unit at Texas Children's Hospital, in Houston. But bonding does happen, even under those circumstances. Here are her suggestions for helping it along.
Focus on your baby's face.Ignore the tubes and everything else except your child.
Chat her up.Your newborn is already attuned to your voice from the womb. But speak softly, so as not to overwhelm her.
Make physical contact.A preemie can't tolerate a lot of caressing, however, so ask the nurse what kind of stroking is safe.
Get closer.Some studies have shown that when parents lay a preemie, tubes and all, on their chest for hours at a stretch, the infant tends to go home from the hospital sooner and to cry less.