You’ve been waiting nine months for this little bundle of joy to come into your life, and finally, after the pain of labour, your precious little one looks up at you in wonder and expectation.
What do you feel in that moment?
Many mothers describe the experience as “complete euphoria,” surpassing any other feeling of love or affection. It’s a special attachment, or bonding, that takes place between mother and child. But not all births – or all bonding experiences – happen that way.
What is bonding?
Bonding refers to the special attachment that forms between a mother and father and their new baby. That bond is what sends parents rushing into their newborn’s room in the middle of the night at the slightest whimper. It’s also what makes parents want to instinctively care for and nurture their child, and attend to the variety of cries that they exert to express their needs.
How is bonding formed?
The hormone oxytocin, which is released during pregnancy and in greater amounts during labour, helps to create a feeling of euphoria and love for your newborn. You may feel an overwhelming urge to protect your baby from the first moment you see her. And while you’re savouring the high, the feel-good hormone dopamine that’s coursing through your body is also helping your baby to attach emotionally to you.
When bonding isn’t formed immediately
Not every mother feels an instinctive bond with her child at birth. In fact, studies have shown that about 20% of new mums (and dads) feel no such bond in the hours immediately following delivery. Sometimes it takes weeks, or even months, before that bond is secured. The reason could be a sick baby in intensive care that you are unable to hold, a multiple birth, an adoption, feeling overwhelmed at the arrival of your baby, sheer exhaustion after childbirth, a traumatic birth, or any number of factors.
It’s quite normal, and experts say that it’s really important not to feel guilty over something that you have no control over. In fact, increased stress levels over the issue are counter-productive to relaxing into a relationship with your child.
How to create – or strengthen – that bond
Experts recommend skin-to-skin touch immediately after birth, for both mum and dad, to start the bonding process. But bonding happens in many ways over time. When you look at your newborn, touch her skin, feed her, and care for her, you’re bonding. Rocking your baby to sleep or stroking her back can establish your new relationship and make her feel more comfortable. When you gaze at your newborn, she will look back at you. In mothers who breastfeed, their baby’s cries will stimulate the let-down of milk.
For many parents, bonding is a byproduct of everyday care giving. You may not even know it’s happening until you observe your baby’s first smile and suddenly realise that you’re filled with love and joy.
The importance of bonding
The parent-child bond is a key factor in the way that your infant’s brain organises itself and influences their social, emotional, intellectual and physical development. A secure bond provides your baby with an optimal foundation for life: eagerness to learn, healthy self-awareness, trust, and consideration for others. An insecure attachment bond – one that fails to meet your infant’s need for safety and understanding – can lead to identity confusion, learning difficulties, and a struggle to relate to others in later life.
Dads and adoptive parents
Bonding frequently occurs on a different timetable for dads and adoptive parents, partially because they don’t have the early contact of breastfeeding that many mothers have.
There are many ways to start and strengthen that bond, and the earlier the better. Where possible:
• Participate in the labour and delivery of your child.
• Feeding: where baby isn’t being breast-fed, bottle feeding (either formula or expressed breast milk) helps establish a bond.
• Read or sing to baby.
• Give baby a bath.
• Mirror baby’s movements.
• Mimic baby’s cooing and other vocalisations — the first efforts at communication.
• Use a front-baby carrier during routine activities.
• Let baby feel the different textures of your face.