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The Science Behind Baby Bonding

Immediately after my twin boys were born via C-section almost three years ago, a nurse placed each baby on my chest for a brief photo-op. It was disorienting seeing those two tiny, fleshy lumps amidst all the steel tools and beeping monitors, but both babies were healthy, as was I, and my partner and I were joyful.

In the years since, I've often wondered: After I held the boys that first time, where did they go? I know I remained in the operating room for at least half an hour, maybe more. Then I passed in and out of an exhausted delirium before waking up in a recovery room where I was reunited with my newborns. Where they went and what they did for that hour in between has always been a mystery to me.

This short absence never really bothered me until recently, when I learned about what's called the "golden" post-birth hour when both mother and child are best primed to form an intense chemical connection with each other. During childbirth, a woman's body releases oxytocin, a hormone that causes the uterus to contract and expel the baby (its synthetic form, Pitocin, is sometimes administered to women to speed up deliveries). Oxytocin is also a feel-good hormone heavily involved with bonding; it's released during orgasm and when breastfeeding. After the child is delivered, the mom is under the influence of this pain-relieving, bliss-inducing "drug," as is the baby, creating a love-at-first-sight moment. Furthermore, the scents released by both baby and mother during birth have powerful pheromones that attract the two to each other, as well as allow the baby to "sniff out" her mother's nipple and instinctively begin to nurse.

Experts say the bond that develops between the two during this time not only sets the tone for their whole relationship, it also helps to determine the future emotional and physical health of the child for decades to come. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) encourages moms to maximize the skin-to-skin contact as much as possible within the first few minutes of a baby's life.

Uh-oh, does that mean my kids and I were robbed? Maybe. Does it mean we're doomed? Thankfully, no. Pediatrician and Babytalk contributing editor William Sears, M.D., father of the attachment parenting movement and the author of 40-plus parenting books, says, "bonding is not an instant glue." It's not a zero-sum game, either. "Just because you didn't hold your babies for the hour after they were born doesn't mean it's all over," he says. "It's never too late to start bonding. I've seen parents who adopt 1-year-olds, and even though it may take longer for their bond to solidify, it does happen. You can always catch up." What's important is what you do with the time you have once you are together, whether that's immediately after birth or not.