Bonding Blues

Expecting to fall in love with your baby during pregnancy seems as normal as the ceaseless craving for sleep. But after the baby is born, some women find the instant connection they anticipated feels more like a wrong number.

When pregnant with her first child, Katie Ertel touched her stomach and talked to her daughter, Baila, all day. "She was part of me," Ertel explains. But after Baila's birth, the new mother's feelings changed. "I would look at her in the hospital, and I couldn't connect. It felt like I was living someone else's life," Ertel recalls. "It was almost like she wasn't my baby." She says it took several weeks to make the connection with Baila-and admits a good support system and nursing made the difference.

Unrealistic ideals and deadlines

"I hear from a lot of moms after they go home," says Sherri Mendelson, RNC, a member of the BabyWise education program at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in Mission Hills, Calif. "They say they didn't feel that they loved their babies right away and were surprised by that."

Other people's expectations are one factor keeping moms mum. "Because the feelings don't seem appropriate, they model the norm. But when they go home," says Mendelson, "reality hits."

Carolyn Christensen, a single mom, realized she wasn't bonding with her daughter Brianna while in the hospital. "When I came home, it got scary," she says. During her pregnancy, she did everything by the book and expected a normal delivery. But she had a difficult pregnancy and a nightmarish delivery. "Nothing went right," she notes. Scared, disillusioned and alone, Christensen enlisted the support of family and friends, who took care of mother and child until they found their own rhythm.

Philadelphia-based William Singletary, M.D., a child psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, advises women to ease into the mothering role, and says some parents' expectations are based on mythical ideals. "I think there's a myth about bonding. It's almost as if it's a biological process that happens at a particular time," he says. "I think of it more as an attachment that develops, grows and becomes richer over days, months and years."

But if you should worry-when? According to Marshall H. Klaus, M.D., author of Bonding: Building the Foundations of Secure Attachment and Independence (Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1995), studies indicate that 25 percent of mothers feel a bond before the birth, another 25 percent at the birth, and another 40 percent a week or more after the birth. Klaus recommends early contact, suckling in the first hour and rooming-in for moms to facilitate bonding.

He cautions, however, that continued bonding difficulties more than three weeks after the birth might be on the outer margins of normal.

What's normal, what's not

Although mixed feelings, some resentment and transient anger are normal, Singletary says the predominant tone of the relationship should be positive. Constant gaze aversion by either mother or baby is not normal. And if a parent's feelings interfere with the baby's development or the ability to parent the child and respond to infant cues, Singletary recommends contact with a counselor skilled in birth issues.

Sometimes the counselor is reassuring. "What the mother feels ashamed and guilty about may be no more than a normal variation of things. It's normal for a parent to feel a little withdrawn and overwhelmed at times," explains Emanuel E. Garcia, M.D., president of the Psychiatric Physicians Association.

Overwhelmed is exactly how Sheila Daniels felt after the birth of her son, Brandon. Suffering from postpartum depression and her son's refusal to nurse, Daniels felt like a failure.

Brandon had a heart condition, and in an effort to keep him healthy until his surgery at age 10 months, Daniels pumped her breast milk several times a day. Yet despite all her efforts, Brandon developed a stronger bond with his father. "As a mother, you expect the child to prefer the mom over the dad. I felt rejected," Daniels reveals. "There are still times when he prefers my husband, but you have to move past those issues or you get resentful and take it out on the baby."

In most cases, Klaus says, dads don't bond with the speed or the intensity of the mother. However, eager dads point to studies that suggest fathers who have 15 minutes of hands-on contact with their newborns in the first hour after birth spend significantly more time with the babies in the first three months.

Other bonding barriers

While a child's health can affect bonding, a parent's childhood, family relationships, and other variables, including whether the child was planned and the mother's relationship with the father, can have dramatic consequences.

"If having the child becomes extremely burdensome for the mother, the child can become a source of conflict and positive bonding may not occur," Garcia explains.

Judy Lyons understands this concept but knows it's never too late to build a bridge with your child. While pregnant with her second child, Lyons says her husband kicked her in the stomach. She was hospitalized for two months. Megan was born at 29 weeks and spent three months in an incubator, which increased the distance between mother and child. "I got pregnant when I didn't want to, and I think in some ways, I blamed Megan for the problems," she admits. "At the same time, I felt tremendous shame, guilt and remorse."

After more than 20 years of therapy, Lyons and Megan have come full circle. "I will never feel as close to her as I do to my other daughter," Lyons notes. "But we are able to talk and she listens. We're bonding."

Steps to feeling better

Discuss feelings with a spouse, family member, friend, pediatrician or counselor.

Attend parenting classes or support groups.

Keep a journal.

Take an exercise class, or go for a walk with your baby in a park or other interactive setting.

Resources for Help

The National Association of Mothers' Centers: Offers support to new mothers and families. (800) 645-3828.

The American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy: Provides lists of local family therapists. (202) 452-0109.

The Family Resources Coalition: Conducts a resource and referral service and provides information on starting or finding parents' groups. (312) 341-0900.

The Parent Child Center of The New York Psychoanalytic Hospital. (212) 879-6900.

Read More:
Strategies for Surviving Post-Partum

What You Should Know about Women and Depression