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Ask Dr. Sears: Bonding Problems

Q  I did not want to have children, but one year after I got married I found out I was pregnant. My husband was thrilled, but I wasn't. After four months, I still don't feel that all-consuming love for him that everyone talks about. Is there something wrong with me?


A Bonding with your baby is not like some instant glue¿ -- it takes a long time for a loving relationship to set. We want to believe in love at first sight, but that's as rare in parenthood as in real life. True, for many mothers an infant attachment does begin at birth. Yet the maternal bond is really an ongoing process. It might take months before your relationship unfolds to the all-consuming love your friends talk about¿ -- but it will happen.

The Biochemistry of Bonding

There's a pea-sized gland¿ -- the pituitary¿ -- at the base of your brain. This gland produces the powerful maternal hormones prolactin and oxytocin, which are thought to be responsible for bonding and mother's intuition. These hormones are also part of the milk-making process¿ -- that's why the most direct way to stimulate these hormones is breastfeeding. When the baby sucks from your nipple, it sends nerve impulses to your brain to start producing more mothering hormones.

If you are currently breastfeeding, increase the frequency of feedings. The more often you breastfeed, the more you will produce these hormones. If you are bottle-feeding, you can still let your baby enjoy a lot of skin-to-skin contact with your breasts. You could even let your baby suck from your breasts as with a pacifier. Try to think of bottle-feeding more as a social interaction than just a way to deliver nutrition. Gaze into your baby's eyes, caress him, and enjoy the physical contact of nursing.

Physical Connections Become Emotional

Proximity fosters love, so keep your baby close. Wear him around in a baby carrier at least three hours a day. Put your carrier on while you're doing activities around the house, taking a walk, or out shopping. With your baby so close, you'll start to notice a feeling of completeness when your baby is with you.

Sleeping in the same bed is another way to feel close. Nap with your baby during the day and co-sleep at night. Again, try to get in lots of skin-to-skin contact. The more touch time you enjoy with one another, the sooner this love affair will blossom.

Obstacles to Bonding

Based on my experience in pediatric practice, the number one interference with bonding and attachment are "baby training" methods. There are a number of books and programs that recommend strict child-rearing regimens, such as putting babies on a rigid schedule, not letting them sleep with parents, not picking them up, and so on.

Most of these methods say crying is a baby's attempt somehow to manipulate the parents. They recommend parents let baby "cry it out." But babies cry to communicate, not to manipulate. This is how baby training interferes with the natural attachment between mother and baby. Letting your baby cry desensitizes you from following your natural maternal instincts to pick up and comfort your baby. It may seem convenient, but it is a bad long-term investment. Only the person who shared an umbilical cord with the baby¿ -- mom¿ -- knows when and how long to let her baby cry.

Take inventory of any other situations in your current lifestyle that interfere with you and your baby: Are you separated from your baby because you're working long hours? Is a prolonged period of postpartum depression hampering your attachment? Are family situations zapping your energy and drawing attention away from your baby? Try to think of ways to overcome these obstacles. My wish for you is that you really enjoy spending time with your baby. When you start with that, the love affair will follow.

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