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The Truth About Bonding

I knew I had bonded with my eldest child, Liam, when he received his first vaccination at 2 months. He let out a wail, his legs flailed, and suddenly I felt tears rolling down my face. The logical side of me knew the shot was for his own good, but the mother lion in me wanted to push the pediatrician out of the way, scoop Liam up into my arms, and make the pain go away. Which is just what I did (without the push, of course). I sat in the examining room for a full 20 minutes afterward, not caring whether the doctor might need it for another patient; I had to cradle, kiss, and rock my baby  -- and anyone who dared interfere with that, beware.

I bonded with my second child, Michael, now 5, during the middle-of-the-night feedings in his early weeks of life, when in the soft glow of his bedroom nightlight, I nursed him and sang to him and found pure happiness in the simple, lovely task of nurturing.

We all have images of that magic moment when we become forever bonded to our babies, locked in a hold of emotion stronger than any we've ever felt before. Usually those visions involve the moments right after birth: Flush with pure joy, we cradle our infants and become instantly attached.

The truth is, while this scenario may play out for some parents, it's certainly not universal. In surveys, up to 40 percent of new moms say they didn't feel genuine affection for their baby until the end of the first week.

"Bonding is a dynamic process that takes place over days, months, and all the years that you are a parent," says Marshall Klaus, M.D., coauthor of Bonding: Building the Foundation of Secure Attachment and Independence. "But there is a time, usually in the first few weeks, when a mother feels that the baby has become hers and that she would want to harm anyone who might threaten him. It can be an alarming feeling, but it's actually a good sign that you've bonded." In a few more weeks, Dad also will come to feel this way.

Laura Flynn McCarthy's last article for Parenting was "Raising a Stress-Free Child," in the March 2001 issue.

First Forays

Getting from birth to bonding involves many steps that most moms do naturally. What doctors call "bonding" in the mother is often called "attachment" from the infant's point of view. "The building blocks are the little things that you and your baby engage in together every day  -- the gazes, touches, talking, holding, feeding, smiling," says Deborah Weatherston, Ph.D., director of the graduate program in infant mental health at Wayne State University, in Detroit. "All these things lead to a trusting and emotionally joined relationship." It's that sense of security and love that lets your baby know that when she calls you, you'll come  -- whether it's to soothe her tummy, feed her, or change her diaper.

How can you tell whether your baby has become attached to you? "She seems more relaxed in your presence and you can fairly easily allay her distress," says Jerome Kagan, Ph.D., research professor of psychology at Harvard University. "Even if you can't, it doesn't necessarily mean that you haven't bonded. It could just be that your baby is harder to comfort than others or that there's a condition such as gas or colic that you can't ease right away."

Myths & Facts

Over the past several years, intense focus on newborn and toddler development has given us a much greater understanding of how parents and infants bond. But out of that research have also risen some common misconceptions:

  • If you don't bond with your baby within a few days after birth, you won't ever be able to bond as well as parents who did. Not true. Couples who adopt, for example, often don't meet the baby until he's several months old, but they bond every bit as much.

    Likewise, when fathers go off to war and don't see their baby for the first year of his life, they come back and within a few weeks have bonded, says Kagan. "If you don't feel intense closeness immediately, it's not going to make any difference in your relationship with your child."

  • If you don't breastfeed, you can't bond. Breast milk is the best nutritional choice for your baby, and clearly, nursing can enhance bonding: It causes your body to release the hormone oxytocin and your brain to release serotonin, two natural chemicals that can encourage warm, maternal feelings. "But you can bond just as well if you bottle-feed your baby," says James Lemons, M.D., professor of pediatrics at Riley Children's Hospital, in Indianapolis. What's more, bottle-feeding gives Dad a chance to be close to his baby.

    "When our son, Robert, was a newborn, I took care of him for a three-hour stretch each night when I got home from work so that my wife could get some rest," says Bob Irving of Putnam Valley, NY. "It was during those hours  -- when I gave him a bottle, burped him, and changed him and we watched the World Series together  -- that I think Robert and I really bonded. Beth breastfed him the rest of the time, but being able to give him one bottle of formula a day made a big difference for all of us."

  • If you put your baby in daycare, you won't bond. It's true that the more time you spend with your baby in the early months  -- learning to understand her various cries and body language  -- the more opportunities you'll have to bond with her. But, say experts, it's not necessarily the amount of time you have together that matters most for bonding; rather, it's the nature of that time. Are you happy being with your baby? Do you interact playfully with her and respond to her needs? These things count more than simply being there.

    It's also true that if you put your baby in the care of another loving, responsible adult, you'll get a break, your baby will get attention, and you just might be that much happier to see her  -- a feeling she can sense.

    Close To You

    How quickly you bond may depend in part on how you felt during your pregnancy. Were you delighted to find out you were expecting? At least a few times during those nine months did you feel really good and enjoy your growing belly? Did you have support from your husband, friends, and family? If a mom can answer "yes" to these questions, she's more likely to want and love her baby.

    And then once your newborn finally arrives, there are a host of other factors that can affect how easily the two of you become pals.

    Time together after delivery Being alone with your husband and your baby shortly after delivery can be an ideal time to begin bonding. Within the first hour of life, a newborn enters into a period of heightened, quiet alertness that lasts about 45 minutes, says Dr. Klaus. "The baby can look directly at Mom's and Dad's faces and respond to their voices," he says.

    Many hospitals allow this intensely personal family time, postponing certain procedures, such as putting vitamin K ointment in the newborn's eyes. But if yours doesn't or if you've had a c-section, don't worry. Your infant will spend about ten percent of every day of his first few weeks in this state. He'll seem curious, and he'll study your face and listen intently to your voice. During these moments, sit peacefully with him, changing your facial expressions and vocal sounds to keep his attention. Such back-and-forth interactions help strengthen the ties between you.

    Your recovery Most moms experience the "baby blues" for one or a few days after giving birth because of hormonal changes. Being aware that this normal phase should pass soon can help you get through it, as can talking about how you feel with other moms, family members, or your husband.

    But in the meantime, this sadness can interfere with how quickly you bond. After all, it's hard to tend to your baby when you're down, overwhelmed, or distracted. So if you find you're still feeling blue after you get home, have your husband line up some support. Hire a cleaning service for a few weeks, ask a neighbor to pick up some things at the store for you, allow a friend to cook dinner. "Your goal should be twofold: to spend as much time with your baby as possible and to focus on your own well-being," says Dr. Klaus.

    For 10 to 15 percent of women, the blues extend into weeks of postpartum depression, when they may experience unexplained weepiness, loneliness, and sleep problems. If you feel this way for more than two weeks, seek help: Ask your ob-gyn for referrals to experts or support groups in your area or call the national organization Depression After Delivery (800-944-4PPD).

    How prepared you are "When Alexandra was born six years ago, I was shocked by how much of a commitment being a parent was," says Jodi Marinos of Boca Raton, FL. "I hadn't thought about the fact that I couldn't just run out to do errands anymore on a whim. I wish I'd realized how consuming motherhood is, though, truth be told, there's no way to really comprehend it until you become a parent." Still, taking a childbirth, babycare, or prenatal-exercise class before you deliver can help you understand what to expect later and may help you hook up with other new moms. "Often these classes turn into playgroups once the babies are born, which are as much fun and help for the mothers as they are for the kids," says Weatherston.

    Your baby's personality and health It's easy to bond with a happy infant, harder with one who's fussy. "About twenty percent of babies are simply born with an irritable temperament, and their nature has nothing to do with the quality of the care their parents give them," says Kagan. "Parents need to realize this and not burden themselves with guilt."

    Taking time to play Singing and dancing with your baby, tickling, playing peekaboo: Such games let him see your joy and respond in kind, forming tighter bonds between the two of you. With a very young baby, try these fun tricks: As he watches, stick out your tongue and bring it back into your mouth or open up your mouth really wide and close it, then see if he repeats the action. Don't be surprised if in a few months he invites you to play, sticking out his own tongue so that you can imitate.

    Previous miscarriages If you've lost a baby, giving birth can stir up emotions that you thought were settled. You may find yourself longing for the child youonce hoped for, even while you have your newborn in your arms. "Moms need to face these feelings and work to resolve them," says Weatherston. "Talking to a counselor, doctor, or friend can help them move on."

    The relationship between you and your husband It's true that your marriage changes after you've had a baby  -- you become a family. But now is the time when you need to support each other and share the joys of your infant  -- as well as the responsibilities. If you have unresolved issues with your partner, it's best to try to work them out before the baby is born. Afterward, keep talking  -- and listening  -- so that you understand each other's needs.

    Getting physical You needn't sleep in the same bed with your baby to bond, but lots of physical contact can help. In the first few weeks, lie skin to skin for a little while each day. Try putting her in a front baby carrier to keep her close to you as you walk around in stores. When you bathe her, take time to really appreciate the miracle of each little toe, the softness of her hair, and the peach fuzz on her skin.

    Consider learning infant massage. "It makes babies less irritable, better able to sleep and digest their food, and simply happier and more relaxed," says Tiffany Field, Ph.D., director of the Touch Research Institutes at the University of Miami School of Medicine.

    The first few months that you spend getting to know your baby will likely be among the most special times in your life. Sure, you'll be exhausted and pulled in every direction. But in some ways you'll never feel more loved or love anyone more than the bundle you get to hold in your arms and call your own.

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