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Bonding With Your Baby

What Is Bonding?

Bonding is the intense attachment that develops between parents and their baby. It makes parents want to shower their baby with love and affection and to protect and care for their little one. Bonding gets parents up in the middle of the night to feed their hungry baby and makes them attentive to the baby's wide range of cries.

Scientists are still learning a lot about bonding. They know that the strong ties between parents and their child provide the baby's first model for intimate relationships and foster a sense of security and positive self-esteem. And parents' responsiveness to an infant's signals can affect the child's social and cognitive development.

Why Is Bonding Important?

Bonding is essential for a baby. Studies of newborn monkeys who were given mannequin mothers at birth showed that, even when the mannequins were made of soft material and provided formula to the baby monkeys, the babies were better socialized when they had live mothers to interact with. The baby monkeys with mannequin mothers also were more likely to suffer from despair. Scientists suspect that lack of bonding in human babies can cause similar problems.

Most infants are ready to bond right away. Parents, on the other hand, may mixed feelings. Some feel an intense attachment within the first minutes or days after their baby's birth. For others, it may take a bit longer.

But bonding is a process, not something that takes place within minutes or that can only happen within a certain time period after birth. For many parents, bonding builds out of everyday caregiving. You may not even know it's happening until you see your baby's first smile and suddenly realize that you're filled with love and joy.

How Do Babies Bond?

When you're a new parent, it can take a while to understand your newborn and all the ways you can interact:

  • Touch becomes an early language as babies respond to skin-to-skin contact. It's soothing for both you and your baby while promoting your baby's healthy growth and development.
  • Eye-to-eye contact provides meaningful communication at close range.
  • Babies can follow moving objects with their eyes.
  • Your baby tries — early on — to imitate your facial expressions and gestures.
  • Babies prefer human voices and enjoy vocalizing in their first efforts at communication. Babies often enjoy just listening to your conversations, as well as your descriptions of their activities and environments.

What Can Help Make an Attachment?

Bonding with your baby is probably one of the most pleasurable aspects of infant care. You can begin by cradling and gently rocking or stroking your baby. If you and your partner both hold and touch your infant often, your little one will soon come to know the difference between your touches. Both parents can have "skin-to-skin" contact with their newborn by holding the baby against their own skin when feeding or cradling.

Babies, especially premature babies and those with medical problems, may respond to infant massage. Because babies aren't as strong as adults, massage your baby very gently. Before trying infant massage, learn about proper techniques by checking out the many books, videos, and websites on the subject. You can also contact your local hospital to find out if there are classes in infant massage in your area.

Breastfeeding and bottle-feeding are both natural times for bonding. Infants respond to the smell and touch of their mothers, as well as the responsiveness of the parents to their needs. In an uncomplicated birth, caregivers can take advantage of the infant's alert period right after birth by feeding and holding the baby. This isn't always possible, though, and immediate contact isn't necessary for the future bonding of babies and their parents.

Adoptive parents may be concerned about bonding with their baby. It might happen sooner for some than others, but adopted babies and their parents can bond just as well as biological parents and their children.

Bonding With the Other Parent

Dads and other partners often yearn for closer contact with their babies, but bonding can happen on a different timetable. But they should realize, early on, that bonding with their child isn't a matter of being another mom. In many cases, dads share special activities with their infants. And both parents benefit greatly when they can support and encourage one another.

Early bonding activities include:

  • participating in labor and delivery
  • feeding (breast or bottle); sometimes dad forms a special bond with baby when handling a middle-of-the-night feeding and diaper change
  • reading or singing to baby
  • bathing the baby
  • mirroring baby's movements
  • mimicking baby's cooing and other vocalizations
  • using a front baby carrier during routine activities
  • letting baby feel the different textures of dad's face

Building a Support System

At first, caring for a newborn can take nearly all your attention and energy — especially for a breastfeeding mom. Bonding will be much easier if you aren't exhausted by other things going on at home, such as housework, meals, and laundry. It's helpful if dads or other partners can give an extra boost with these everyday chores, as well as offer plenty of general emotional support.

And it's OK to ask family members and friends for help in the days — even weeks — after you bring your baby home. But because having others around during such a transitional period can sometimes be uncomfortable, overwhelming, or stressful, you might want to ask people to drop off meals, walk the dog, or run an errand for you.

What Can Affect Bonding?

Bonding may be delayed for various reasons. Parents-to-be may form a picture of their baby having certain physical and emotional traits. When, at birth or after an adoption, you meet your baby, reality might make you adjust your mental picture. Because a baby's face is the primary tool of communication, it plays a critical role in bonding and attachment.

Hormones can also significantly affect bonding. While nursing or feeding a baby in the first hours of life can help with bonding, it also causes the outpouring of many different hormones in moms. Sometimes mothers have trouble bonding with their babies if their hormones are raging or they have postpartum depression. Bonding can also be delayed if a mom's exhausted and in pain after a long, difficult delivery.

If your baby spends some time in intensive care, you may initially be put off by the amount and complexity of equipment. But bonding with your baby is still important. The hospital staff can help you handle your baby through openings in the isolette (a special nursery bassinet). When your baby is ready, the staff will help you hold your little one. In the meantime, you can spend time watching, touching, and talking with your baby. Soon, your baby will recognize you and respond to your voice and touch.

Nurses will help you learn to bathe and feed your baby. If you're using breast milk you've pumped, the staff, including a lactation consultant, can help you make the transition to breastfeeding before your baby goes home. Some intensive care units also offer rooming-in before you take your baby home to ease the transition.

What if There's a Problem?

If you don't feel that you're bonding by the time you take your baby to the first office visit with your little one's doctor, discuss your concerns then. It may be a sign of postpartum depression. Bonding also can be delayed if your baby has had significant, unexpected health issues, or if you feel exhausted and overwhelmed by your newborn's arrival.

Whatever the cause, the sooner a problem is identified, the better. Health care providers often deal with these issues and can help you be better prepared to form a bond with your baby.

It also can help to share your feelings about bonding with other new parents. Ask about parenting classes for parents of newborns.

What Else Should I Know?

Bonding is a complex, personal experience that takes time. There's no magic formula and it can't be forced. A baby whose basic needs are being met won't suffer if the bond isn't strong at first. As new parents get more comfortable with their baby and routines become more predictable, they'll feel more confident about all the amazing aspects of raising their little one.

Reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date Reviewed: Jan 1, 2024

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