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Reality Check: Bonding With Baby

Q. I wasn't able to breastfeed, and my 6-month-old, Rebecca, is in daycare when I'm at work. How can I tell if we've bonded enough?

A. I could answer that there's no prescribed time period or way in which to bond with your baby. I could point out that all emotional attachments are unique. I could remind you that falling in love is a process, and not a scientifically predictable moment. But I won't, because I know that it won't make you feel any better. Instead, answer these questions: Do you never seem to get tired of staring at your baby? Does thinking about her give you a happy, nervous, butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling? Do most of your hopes and prayers center on your baby's well-being?

If you answered yes to any of these, you can consider yourself bonded. As for baby Rebecca, she doesn't know from bonding right now -- nor should she, says Jerome Kagan, Ph.D., professor of child psychology and development at Harvard. "An infant doesn't understand the meaning of love, so her relationship with her caretaker is based on the care she receives. When she gets her needs met fairly consistently, there's every reason to believe she'll be close to that caretaker. If you want to call that bonding, okay."

To Kagan, the popular notion that parent and baby must "bond" on deadline is a travesty: "There's absolutely no evidence that there's a critical period when a child must bond with his parents. And it's a myth that early bonding is any sort of inoculation against future problems -- it's actually much more complicated than that."

Instead of worrying about abstractions like bonding, Kagan says, every parent should do these four things for her child:

1. Be predictable and consistent, within reason, to foster a feeling of security in her.

2. Nurture her in times of need. ("Basic things, like when she falls and gets cut, stop what you're doing to give a hug and a bandage.")

3. Teach her the values that are important to you.

4. Be a role model to reflect the values and habits you want her to have.

It's that complicated -- and simple.

Contributing editor Trisha Thompson is a former editor-in-chief of BabyTalk magazine.

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