The Truth About Bonding

by Stephanie Wood and Kitty O'Callaghan

The Truth About Bonding

Why it might not happen on day one, and how Mom and Dad (and Baby!) can ease into it

All those months when you were planning and living your pregnancy, you scarcely imagined anything less than falling head over heels in love with your baby.

That’s why it probably came as quite a surprise when you felt that first twinge of resentment. Maybe it was in the throes of pain in the delivery room; or a few days later, when your nipples were gnawed beyond recognition; or weeks later, when you still couldn’t stem the tide of tears from your infant or you. Or perhaps what you were feeling was more like ambivalence: It’s not that you don’t care for your baby, it’s that you’re pining for your old life and aren’t sure that the trade-off is going to be worth it.

The fact is, love at first sight is a bit of a maternal myth for many of us. Previous generations of parents may well have realized this, but some researchers back in the 1970s led us all temporarily astray. They put forth a theory implying that moms and newborns needed to spend the first 24 hours or so in close physical contact to emotionally bond.

The initial repercussions of this theory were actually quite positive, resulting in:

  • Less delivery room anesthesia (many moms slept through or were too wigged out to participate much in the birth process prior to this new bonding concept)
  • Dads suddenly welcomed into the delivery room
  • Hospitals offering rooming-in
  • Newfound interest in the ancient art of breastfeeding.

All this was terrific unless you were the unlucky mom who had her baby whisked away due to medical issues or an out-of-touch hospital staff and were left to feel that your moment of bonding was forever stolen, meaning you’d never have the chance to be the mother you could have been.

The idea that a lifelong relationship could hinge on what happens in the first 24 hours of life sounds laughable now, but back then plenty of new moms were left crying instead. Think what else was going on: The feminist movement was turning life upside down and inside out for women, who were being told they could be and do anything they wanted-yet the doors weren’t always open, or the keys couldn’t be found, when they finally figured out where they wanted to go. This was one more missed opportunity to contend with.

A generation and much misplaced guilt later, the delivery room bonding theory has taken its rightful place on the garbage heap of maternal lore. We all know it’s nothing but a bunch of rubbish, yet many new moms continue to feel like lowlifes when a less-than-loving thought about their baby passes ever so fleetingly through their heads.

We’re here to tell you: Get used to it. It’s totally normal to have mixed feelings, not just in these overly romanticized newborn weeks and months but throughout childhood as your baby evolves from middle-of-the-night nursing creature to defiant toddler to potty-mouthed preschooler to spitball-slinging 7-year-old…you get the idea. And guess what? Your newborn isn’t exactly sure what to make of you, either. He’s got a lot of mental processing to do before he actually connects the voice, the smell, and the taste of you to the fact that his tummy feels better after you’ve been around. Bonding is a two-way street, and then there’s Dad trying to hitch a ride from the side of the road. It’ll be a little while before you all find your way.

Cut yourself some slack

You’ve got all those postpartum discomforts weighing on you, haywire hormones, a wreck of a house, too much company and not enough help, and a child who doesn’t know who she is, where she is, or what she wants most of the time. Try to put yourself on automatic pilot and learn the basics of babycare one step at a time.

It’s actually those simple (okay, not as simple as they seem) acts of diapering and feeding and holding and singing to your baby that promote the mother-child bond. As you respond to your baby’s needs, she learns about you and the fact that you are her universe. Her sense of security grows as she develops the expectation and understanding that whenever she feels hungry or tired or out of sorts, you’ll know just what to do to make her feel better.

Of course you may not always feel like you know just what to do, but you are in fact learning right along with her. Think back on your first dates with your partner: You were nervous about everything from what to order in the restaurant to what to say during the football game. Yet here you are still together after all these years. You and your baby will be also, and she won’t care what you look like first thing in the morning, either, as long as she, too, has easy access to your boobs.

When a baby becomes “attached” (just another, more clinical-sounding word for bonding), she feels secure in her relationship with you, knowing you will always be there to love and protect and meet her needs. Rest assured, she’ll get there no matter what choices you make about feeding, sleeping, and everything else. There are many ways to bond, and you have the brains, instincts, and loving heart to nuture and bond with your baby in your own way.

What about Dad?

Once upon a time, fathers paced back and forth in hospital waiting rooms in anxious expectation of the doctor’s bursting through the doors to announce the arrival of a healthy baby boy or girl. The prevailing wisdom in those days –and it wasn’t all that long ago –was that the early months and years belonged to Mom. Dads bonded when it came time to have a catch or teach their offspring how to ride a bike. Fatherhood has changed in many ways since then, not the least of which is that dads want and are expected to have a bigger role from the get-go.

Bonding can (and should) occur between father and child. Yet dads still face some of the same challenges their own fathers and grandfathers did. Sure, men today make more time to be around for prenatal exams and tests, shop for nursery furniture, and coach their partners in labor. But for the most part, they still head back to work within days of their baby’s birth. Even though the Family Medical Leave Act has been around for more than a decade, we all know that the concept of men taking paternity leave is still taboo in plenty of workplaces. Not surprisingly, then, it’s easy for Dad to feel as left out as ever.

In these early months, one of the most important things you can focus your mental energy on is helping Dad get involved in his baby’s life. This will benefit you on several fronts: Most obviously, you’ll have more help, more often. Next, the stronger the bond between Dad and his child, the easier it will be for him to deduce and fulfill the baby’s wants and needs. Here are a few ways to make all that happen:

Let him help. It may sound like an oxymoron when you are in fact desperate for assistance, but no matter how inadequate we new moms feel at times, we are usually pretty sure we’re better at childcare than our partners. There’s a good reason for this: Because most dads have a different day job while you’re on maternity leave or have become an at-home mom, they just aren’t going to be as in sync as you are with your baby’s ever-changing schedule of eating, pooping, and sleeping. So point out the baby tasks (diapering, burping, rocking) as necessary, then resist swooping in and fixing things when he screws up (which he will). After all, a backward diaper is still better than a dirty diaper. And your baby is probably going to enjoy hearing a raucous football-game recap from Sports Illustrated just as much as your reading Goodnight Moon in motherese.

If your hubby’s learning curve seems steep, it’s okay to dumb things down a bit (trust us: He won’t mind). Teach him how to strap on the front carrier, for instance, and let him get comfortable toting the bambino around without having to worry about supporting his head. Then show him that it’s possible to actually use his hands-perhaps raking leaves or folding laundry-while wearing his baby. Rocking is another foolproof task; short of dropping the baby, there’s not much he can do to screw that up. And your little guy or gal is getting to know about Dad’s manly scent, and hairy chest, in the process, which will prove to be good substitutes when you take on the next step.

Leave-often. Yeah, you read that right. We mean every few days or so, for as many hours as you can manage without your breasts rivaling Mount St. Helens’s last eruption if you’re breastfeeding. If you don’t, your baby will begin to identify your loving arms (and any of your other available appendages, for that matter) as the center of his universe, and your husband will be lost in space. To beam him back, it takes sheer Dad-and-baby time, which can best be accomplished when Mom is out of viewing and smelling range. If it’s hard to tear yourself away, just give your baby to his father and bolt. Quickly. Any wailing and gnashing of teeth (yes, we mean from Dad) won’t last long, and they’ll both be forced to develop the coping tools they need to get along with each other and without you.

Giving them some time –and yourself and the baby time to get to know each other, too –will build that bond in a way that those delivery room nuts in the ’70s could barely dream of.

From the book The Babytalk Insider’s Guide to Your Baby’s First Year: Expert Advice That Tells It Like It Is-Plus the Secrets that Nobody Else Reveals, by The Editors of Babytalk Magazine. Text copyright 2008 by The Parenting Group, Inc. Illustrations copyright ©2008 by Grand Central Publishing. Reprinted by permission of Grand Central Publishing, New York, NY. All rights reserved.