Bonding with your new baby
Despite there being a number of factors that can impact on parent’s bonding/attachment with their new baby, many new parents, particularly mothers, berate themselves and worry about feeling disconnected from their baby. Parents’ however, should not be so critical of their selves, because, like any new relationship, they and their baby need to get to know each other and should allow time for this relationship to develop.
There are also a number of ways that parents can gently help this process along and this article offers some helpful tips and suggestions for bonding with your baby. We suggest that you read this feature in conjunction with our features on ‘Baby behaviour’ and ‘Postnatal mood changes’.
Physical contact with their baby soon after the birth is very important for mothers and fathers and for the baby also. This time immediately after your baby’s birth, is when most of the bonding between you and your new baby will take place.
Skin-to-skin contact where the baby is undressed down to its nappy and is placed against the chest of it mother (or father) is known to calm the baby and promote ‘thermoregulation’ – ie it helps the baby to start maintaining their own body temperature outside of their mother’s womb. It is also great for breastfeeding, if this is your chosen method of infant feeding. Placing your baby on your chest helps to get them interested in feeding and promotes the early initiation of breastfeeding soon after the birth, when babies are often the most alert.
Skin-to-skin contact is also very effective in helping the baby to warm up if they become cold in the initial hours after they have been born; in fact, an hour’s skin-to-skin contact can usually warm a baby up much more quickly than nursing the baby in an incubator at its mother’s bedside!
For these reasons, unhurried skin-to-skin contact is encouraged as soon after the birth as is possible. Even where babies are born by caesarean section and there can be a delay in holding the baby; mothers can still enjoy skin-to-skin contact afterwards. Where babies are born prematurely (too early), skin-to-skin contact forms an important part of their special care in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU); the staff looking after your baby will tend to refer to skin-to-skin contact in this context as ‘Kangaroo care’. This is because it’s rather like the way a kangaroo keeps her baby joey warm and safe in her pouch. Studies have shown that kangaroo care for preterm babies lead to improved stability in their condition and recovery from the birth, more successful breastfeeding and earlier discharge home. The NICU staff will help you to cuddle your new baby as soon as their condition stabilises and will offer skin-to-skin contact with your baby regularly; most NICUs have comfortable recliners/rockers for this purpose.
Babies adore warm, soft surfaces whether this is being held skin-to-skin against their mother or father’s chest, being breast fed, or simply being held close and cuddled. Stroking your baby’s skin, baby massage, and baby’s bath times are all fantastic opportunities for communicating with your baby through the sense of touch.
Babies very quickly recognise their mother’s natural scent and research has shown that where two breast pads (ie the mother’s and another woman’s) are placed one either side of the baby’s head, the baby will always turn automatically towards its mother’s breast pad. Babies find their mother’s scent comforting and reassuring, which is why skin-to-skin contact is so effective in calming down a fretful baby. As your baby gets to know their father too, skin-to-skin contact with daddy can be an equally soothing experience, particularly, of an evening when many young babies are often more unsettled.
Sight and Sound
While it is a known fact that babies spend most of their time sleeping in the early days and weeks post birth, when they awake for a nappy change or feed, this offers parents and their baby a great opportunity to get to know each other better. Your baby will have learnt to recognise its mother’s voice while inside the womb, so talking to your baby, showing lots of smiles, making sure you have plenty of eye contact, and using different sounds and tones in your voice are all important in communicating with your baby and developing your relationship. Your baby will not be able to understand what you are saying for quite a few months, so varying the tone of your voice is the most effective way of communicating with them at this stage.
Similarly, babies will often watch and mimic their parents’ facial expressions, for example, if you poke your tongue out, you can often enjoy watching your baby poke their tongue out too!
Responding to your baby
Research shows us that it’s impossible to spoil a baby, so it is very important that you respond to your baby’s care needs. This includes responding to their cries when they are feeling upset as well as, their care needs when they are happy. As you get to know your baby, you will also learn to distinguish between their different cries – ie when they are hungry, have a wet or dirty nappy, are cold, are feeling bored and want to be cuddled, are windy, or are feeling off colour. Your baby will start responding to you very quickly and this trust is an important aspect of bonding and developing your relationship together. All babies need love and affection to thrive.
Dads bond too!
Immediately after the birth, there is a lot of focus on the needs of the mother and newborn baby. In all of this excitement, dads can occasionally feel a little marginalised. However, research shows us that dads experience their own feelings of bonding/attachment with their baby. Dads play a vital role in their baby’s healthy development and their involvement in their baby’s care promotes an equally strong and trusting relationship. Enjoying those first cuddles immediately after the birth is just as important for dads’ attachment with their new baby. While it is recognised that dads can often take a little longer to bond with their baby, there are many aspects of care that they can be involved with. For example, baby’s bath time, nappy changing and play time are all important aspects of care that promote parent/baby interaction and the development of a close and loving relationship.
I still don’t feel close to my baby?
In some case, mothers find that they are still feeling detached from their baby quite some weeks after the birth. It might be that the feelings of attachment have not developed as expected, or sometimes mothers can start to feel even more distanced from their baby, or resentful towards the baby for the impact they’ve had on their life and how they are feeling. Quite often this is linked to the sheer exhaustion that accompanies parenthood, caused by the many sleepless nights and around-the-clock care needs of a young baby. In most cases, ensuring that new parents receive extra support from their friends and family can help to make things easier. However, mothers can sometimes develop postnatal depression (PND), which is more severe than the ‘baby blues’ that commonly occurs around the third postnatal day (see our feature on postnatal mood changes). Many women are frightened to admit they feel detached from their baby for fear of being considered a bad mother; or because they fear that their baby may be taken into care. However, mothers’ feelings of detachment from their baby and not liking their baby are both classic signs of PND.
If you or your partner have any concerns or are worried about your feelings towards and/or relationship with your new baby, it is important that you contact your GP or health visitor as soon as possible. They will make sure that you are offered specialist help and support. PND is common and also very treatable, so the sooner treatment is started, the sooner you will start to feel closer to your baby and more sensitive to their needs.