The Truth About Bonding

by Paula Spencer

The Truth About Bonding

When my youngest daughter, Page, was born, I was almost too startled to look at her. The video my husband took proves it. I lie there shaking my head. I point to the clock. I talk to the amazed nurses and doctor. "I can't believe it!" I say again and again, not quite ready to focus on this new creature who slithered into the world three weeks early and barely 30 minutes after I'd arrived at the hospital.

Everything about those first days with her seems rushed, in retrospect. After the delivery, I held her in that agog way awhile, then her temperature fell and she was placed under warming lights. She was fine  — perfect  — but the interruptions kept coming. Nurses. Doctors. Flowers. Breakfast. Three loud, giddy siblings. Two nights of insomnia. One case of exhaustion. Then Page developed jaundice severe enough to require multiple pediatrician visits and home phototherapy, which involved her sleeping on what looked like a baby tanning bed with awful goggles over her eyes. All while I tended her older brother and sisters. Sometimes when Page made her squeaky newborn mews, I'd be surprised to see her there, half forgotten in the hubbub.

What a contrast to the leisurely, cooing extended love-in with my firstborn. I had all the time in the world to ogle, snuggle, and absorb the enormity of what had just happened. And yet I'm "bonded" just as tightly to each child. Our introductions were just a little different.

Bonding is a concept that both expectant and new parents often worry about: Is it happening? What if it never does? Am I doing it right? But that enduring and deep connection between mom and baby almost always unfolds over time, even when you can't see it at first. And the way it happens has many influences. So let the following truths help you relax as you nurture closeness.

Processes and connections

Bonding is a process, not a moment.

Many moms expect to feel a connection with their child automatically: Deliver baby, deliver placenta, bond! Sometimes it does seem to happen this fast. "My immediate reaction to Isabella was powerful. After she was born, I told my husband that I'd 'kill or maim' for her," says Theresa Reise of Redford, Michigan.

"I never say things like that! But that's how I felt from the second I saw her."

It's just as common to take longer to click with your newborn. Becky Farris had a normal delivery, started to breastfeed immediately, and roomed with her baby. But a moment of rapturous bonding? Nope. "I expected to lay eyes on her and be so in love, like I'd known her forever. But I felt as though she weren't even mine," says the Tomball, Texas, mom of 1-year-old Rylie. It was two weeks before Farris says she experienced "that feeling everyone had described": comfortable, connected, confident, and in love.

Women often see the first minutes or hours after delivery as their first test of motherhood. If they navigate those moments just so, they'll have "succeeded." This thinking is based on pioneering research on bonding from the 1960s. "We did find that bonding is easier if you hold the baby right after delivery and get to keep her with you, among other things," says Marshall Klaus, M.D., coauthor of Bonding. "But it doesn't mean that if you don't get the baby right away, you aren't going to bond."

Between 30 and 40 percent of moms become attached to their babies in the first hour or two after delivery, according to Dr. Klaus. Another 40 percent take a week or so to feel the baby is truly "theirs." For others, this process takes longer. (One in 10 new moms experiences postpartum depression, which can disrupt  — but not permanently detour  — the route to attachment.) Bottom line: It's not necessary to feel bonded instantly in order to have a loving relationship with your child.

Your connection starts well before birth.

New moms have been in a relationship with their babies since learning they were pregnant, says Tracy Gaudet, M.D., director of the Duke Center for Integrative Medicine in Durham, North Carolina. "You're completely intermingled. Your breath provides the oxygen for your baby, and your blood transports everything that's essential for life. Your hormones, your diet, your stress level, and your health habits directly affect the baby. And the baby, obviously, is changing you," she says. There's evidence that your baby can recognize your voice in utero in the third trimester.

Tuning in to these connections throughout pregnancy  — realizing how you alter your diet or activity level, noticing fetal movement, talking to your baby (out loud or in your head)  — can help you build a gradual relationship with her so it doesn't overwhelm you all at once in the delivery room, says Dr. Gaudet.

Wanda Celgin, of Seberna Park, Maryland, believes that talking to Alicia, 3, and Clay, 2, in utero explains why "when they were born it was as if I knew them already  — I just had a face to go with the person I'd imagined for several months." While she was pregnant with her daughter, she had an hour-long commute to work. "As I drove, I talked to her out loud about my hopes and dreams, what I was doing that day, all kinds of things. I'd also rub my belly, which was my way of hugging her."

What affects the bonding experience

Your labor and delivery can color your bonding experience.

It's only logical that a mom's physical and emotional condition after birth affects how she interacts with her newborn. Tiffany Siler, for example, felt exhausted after her unexpectedly quick delivery. She'd spent the last weeks of pregnancy confined to bed with preeclampsia, a condition marked by hypertension that causes debilitating migraines. Her blood pressure remained dangerously high after she gave birth to her son, Cordaye. "I really felt left out of the whole getting-to-know-you time," says Siler, of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. "My partner was the first one to hold and touch our son, so I had to work a little harder to bond with him," she says.

Feeling good mentally and physically after delivery makes you more receptive to enjoying your new baby. One proven factor for a smoother experience: continuous support during labor  — whether from a professional doula or even your husband, sister, or friend, priming you for positive feelings about motherhood and your baby.

Certain things do enhance bonding. (But not doing them won't prevent it.)

Most hospitals now recognize the importance of parent-newborn contact as soon as possible after birth. In an uncomplicated vaginal delivery, your baby may be placed in your arms, umbilical cord still attached. Rooming in with your baby at the hospital lets you feed on demand and learn your baby's signals.

Once you're home, there are many other effective routes to bonding. Babywearing is one. A Columbia University study found that after a year, 83 percent of infants whose moms wore them in front carriers were strongly attached to their moms compared with 38 percent of infants who were placed in baby seats. With her son, Cordaye, Siler tried kangaroo care  — holding his bare body against her bare chest  — to help them bond. She also restricted visitors so she and her son could have uninterrupted time. "It took a few months," she says, "but now I feel that special tie between us."

Other ways to foster a connection:

  • Be responsive to your baby. Pick him up whenever he cries. (Even if you have no idea what he wants, your responsiveness builds his trust in you over time.)
  • Feed him when he's hungry. Breastfeeding is an ideal way to reinforce bonds because it involves skin-to-skin contact and holding, but bottle-fed babies also reap the benefits of being snuggled and making eye contact.
  • Carry him often.
  • Talk to him.
  • Touch your baby, whether you kiss and nuzzle him, massage him after a bath, or blow raspberries on his belly.

 It's not rocket science  — and you're likely to be doing many of these things already.

You need time to adjust.

Say you expected the Gerber baby but gave birth to a ruddy, vernixy raisin with a pointed head. Or you wanted a girl and out came a bouncing baby boy. It takes a little mental shifting to move from expectations to reality. On top of that, you're getting used to the realities of new motherhood, which may not be exactly what you envisioned. You feel responsible for a helpless life (and helpless yourself about how to care for it). You may be overwhelmed with advice. And while you're focused so intensely on the baby, you may be neglecting yourself  — your bleeding, sore body, your altered self-image, even your basic needs (like sleep!). These concerns can easily overshadow the bundle of bliss in your lap.

"I heard all these stories about tears and relief and excitement, but I wasn't feeling any of that," admits Susan Herrera of Fort Polk, Louisiana, mom of Antonio. "Instead, I was so worried about screwing my son up. I was afraid he wasn't learning the right things because I didn't buy Baby Mozart. I had nightmares of dropping him or of him being kidnapped." At first she blamed fatigue, then she worried something was wrong with her mothering skills. After about six months, as she began to feel more confident and came into her own as a mom, she realized where she'd gone wrong. "From the beginning, I was bombarded with advice: 'What you should do is this' or 'I did this,' and I was so preoccupied with it," she says. "As I learned to trust myself, my anxiety subsided, and I was able to enjoy my son."

Support always helps

You can't go it alone.

Having social support (the kind that comes without criticism or second-guessing) after you bring your baby home has been shown to reduce the risk of postpartum depression. It only makes sense that if you have someone to relieve you from babycare so you can sleep, eat well, and have time to recharge your mental batteries, you're more likely to enjoy your baby. Exhaustion, colic, or physical problems for you or him are huge stressors.

Making matters worse is the assumption that a new mom will be blissed-out and happy. While there's no correlation between how fast you bond and how "good" a mom you are, women who take longer often feel guilty or worried about it, and feel they have nowhere to turn.

"If you try to talk about it, people look at you like you're crazy or coldhearted," says Nancy Carr of Baltimore, who spent the first few weeks staring at her son, Eamonn, and wondering, Who is this little man and where did he come from? "At my postpartum checkup, I started crying because I didn't feel bonded yet. My doctor was great. She said it took her six months and that she sees it all the time. It was such a relief to talk about it."

If you're feeling helpless, worried, or overwhelmed, chances are one of your mom friends did, too. Be honest with them, your husband, and your doctor, so you can get the support you need. Don't be shy about asking for help, and give yourself permission to spend time away from the baby. Even a short walk alone, a meal out, or a nap helps. You might also look into local moms' groups. (Check the bulletin board at your pediatrician's office, community listings in your local paper, or online.)

Going back to work won't break the bond.

"Will she forget me?" "Will he hate me?" Many moms have six to eight weeks to build a relationship with their new baby before going back to work. To help preserve that tie: If possible, take an extended unpaid leave or work part-time for a while and slowly segue back to a full-time schedule; breastfeed; spend as much time with your baby as you can  — even if that means ordering takeout and letting the housework go.

For Nancy Carr, going back to work reassured her that she was connected with Eamonn. "The first few days before I started, I dropped him at daycare for a few hours as practice. When I picked him up, I realized we were so happy to see each other, and suddenly, instead of feeling like 'Where did you come from?' I felt more like 'It's you and me, kid.' I realized we'd developed a very special bond."