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Ask Dr. Sears: Bonding During Military Service

Q. I am due to have my first child in about five weeks and I'm looking forward to all of the beautiful moments with my baby. I strongly believe in the importance of bonding, for mother, father and child -- from the first moments of life and beyond. Unfortunately, the baby's father is on active military duty. Due to the circumstances of wartime, dad's leave will only be about a week after the baby's due date. Then he'll get the same amount of time another two or three times in the first year of our son's life. It's devastating to me, but we must deal with it. How can we have that bonding experience between the two of them during such a crucial developmental period?

A.
Military families adapt to parenting in less than ideal situations. It's yet another aspect of their service that doesn't always receive a lot of recognition. Here are some ways dad can get close to his new baby in the limited time he has at home, and some tips to help him stay in touch from long distance.

Bond in the first week after birth. Since your husband will only have a week or so after baby is born, make the best of it. Within the first hour after birth, babies usually have a quiet alertness stage where their eyes are wide open and they're eager to bond with their parents. Take advantage of this opportunity for all three of you to bond together. If medical complications occur that prevent you from holding the baby right after birth, then father can. Immediately after birth is when babies need to know to whom they belong -- mom and dad. During that first week at home, encourage Dad to do much of the hands-on-care (except for breastfeeding of course). If you're bottle-feeding, do shift work so dad enjoys half the feedings.

Enjoy special father-bonding touches. Here are two methods of cuddling that are great for men: the "neck nestle" and the "warm fuzzy." With the warm fuzzy, baby lays atop dad's chest, so that he can snuggle skin-to-skin and chest-to-chest. In the neck nestle, dad holds baby skin-to-skin against his chest and drapes his chin over baby's head, which nestles snuggly in the crook of dad's neck. Then he sings to the baby. The vibration of the deeper male voice box and the cheekbones against baby's head during singing can lull baby right to sleep. In my experience it's just as enjoyable for dad, too.

Let dad add a finishing touch. Babies usually fall asleep during the end of a feeding. After you have nursed baby almost asleep, encourage dad to sing and rock baby in the neck nestle position until baby is fully asleep and then ease baby down to sleep.

Have father wear the baby. Get a baby carrier -- sling-type carriers are easier for dads to use. Encourage dad to carry, or "wear," his baby around the house most of the day. They'll get some high-touch time with each other, and you'll find it easier to relax knowing dad is taking care of the baby.

Let yourself bond with your husband. After spending all this time with close to your baby, your husband will be hooked on his child. It will also bring out your love for your husband.

Stay connected while apart. Dad should make a tape recording of his voice singing to baby, perhaps the same lullaby they both got used to when he crooned baby off to sleep. Also, encourage him to talk cutely to his baby saying things like, "Hi, baby. This is daddy..." Play the tape daily. Let dad's lullaby soothe baby off to sleep. Place an 8x10 black-and-white photo of dad in your baby's bed and let baby look at it frequently. In the early months babies focus best on contrasting black and white figures.

When dad comes home for leave, he and baby can resume these same father-bonding touches. Because they were imprinted in your baby's mind early on, baby will naturally warm back up to dad much easier. The more dad bonds with baby in those early weeks and keeps the connection going while he's away, the easier they will reconnect once they are reunited.

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