By Jonathan M. Fanaroff, M.D.
Research shows that bonding – the emotional attachment between parent and child – fosters a sense of security, improves health and provides the first model for intimate relationships formed later in life.
With such high stakes, many parents feel anxious about the process – especially when the initial bond isn’t what the parent expected. Just remember, bonding happens naturally. Whether you feel an instant connection to your newborn or it takes a bit longer, there are many ways to build a secure bond.
Bond During Pregnancy
Begin to bond with baby before she is born, helping to set the stage for lifelong intimacy. Feel baby’s movement as the pregnancy progresses, see ultrasounds, write in a journal or write letters to your baby, and rub your belly to connect with your child. Dads and adoptive parents can participate in these activities, too. By the second trimester, your baby develops the ability to hear, and you can play music or talk to her. Studies show that early interaction will lay the groundwork for your relationship outside of the womb. In fact, newborns often show a marked preference for their parents’ voices because those voices are already familiar.
Connect with Baby in the Hospital
When choosing where to give birth, look for a family-centered hospital that encourages parent-child bonding. No hospital actively discourages bonding, but some place a stronger emphasis on attachment. Several facilities allow parents to sleep on cots near their baby in neonatal intensive care. Others have a staff of lactation consultants to assist breastfeeding mothers. If medically possible, arrange for your baby to sleep in your room and take an active role in his care. You can also ask to hold him after birth or request that dad cut the umbilical cord.
BondTouch Therapy for ‘Preemies’
Some newborns must spend more than a few days at the hospital. If you can’t be with your baby for an extended period after birth due to medical complications, you can still bond. Decorate the hospital space with blankets and family photos or leave a recorded tape of your voice so that your baby is reminded of you while you’re away. For preemies, engage in skin-to-skin contact (kangaroo care) by holding your diapered baby on your bare chest. Touch therapy is one of the best treatments for preemies; studies show EEG brain wave patterns improve in babies when touched, which can help improve breathing, weight gain and alertness. If touch is restricted, modified contact like holding your baby’s hand will help him sense your physical presence.
Plan for Bonding in Everyday Care
Once you’re discharged from the hospital, the best way to bond with your baby is during daily tasks; maintain eye contact while feeding her, changing her diaper or administering a gentle infant massage. You will inherently recognize bonding when you feel a special closeness during daily moments, like the first time you share a smile with your baby, play peek-a-boo or feel protective of her. Breastfeeding also helps form a bond because it is touch-oriented and increases oxytocin hormone levels in moms.
Give Dad a Chance
A father’s special relationship with his baby differs from the maternal bond, but is just as vital to the baby’s overall well-being. To establish attachment, fathers need to participate in daily care, when bonding naturally occurs. Breastfeeding moms can pump to express milk so that dads can participate in bottle feeding. While on the go, a front baby carrier can increase the amount of time baby is in contact with dad. Choose a carrier that holds baby in a position that does not strain the head, neck, spine or hips and is made of nontoxic, allergen-free materials. Look for carriers designed to meet the physical and developmental needs of infants while supporting early bonding (the BabyBjörn Baby Carrier is one example).
Bonding May Take Time
For some, bonding takes place within the first few days – or even minutes – of birth. For others, it takes longer due to emotional or medical variations, both of which are normal. Bonding doesn’t need to occur during a particular window of time. Some researchers point to a “sensitive period” immediately after birth when mothers and newborns seem particularly primed to connect. If you don’t feel attached right after birth, it doesn’t mean you’ve missed the opportunity to develop a close relationship with your baby.
Adjusting to a new baby and establishing the important connection that distinguishes the parent-child relationship can take time. Remember, you and your child are biologically prepared to form a strong bond that is unique to you and cannot be held to a predetermined timeline.
Your bond with your child will change over the years, but its importance never fades. The key to bonding is simply to discover and enjoy your baby. Early bonding is a wonderful start to the long process of developing a trusting, loving and lasting relationship.
Jonathan Fanaroff, M.D., is a pediatrician, director of the Rainbow Center for Pediatric Ethics in Cleveland, associate medical director of the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital/UH Case Medical Center, and assistant professor of pediatrics at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine.