Bonding with baby in the early days

Some women expect love to strike like a lightning bolt when their baby is born. But bonding is a process, not a moment.

Photo: iStockphotos
Photo: iStockphotos

When CaIley Crawford’s daughter, Maggie, was born, the doctor put the baby on her chest and she felt…happy. “It was a nice moment,” she says. “I was glad to see her. But I didn’t have this feeling of deep connection and overwhelming love.”

There’s a mythology, the Toronto mom observes, about that incredible moment when you bond with your baby. “If you don’t experience that, it can make you doubt your depth of feelings or your own motherliness,” she says. But Crawford, a former volunteer caregiver at a hospice, likens the birth experience to that of bereavement. It’s a funny juxtaposition, but it works. “People grieve in their own way. Just because you don’t cry or fall apart, it’s not a reflection of how deeply you loved the person. It’s the same with having a baby.”

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Midwives, who provide postpartum care as well as attend births, have helped many moms and babies find their groove. Patty Mcniven, a midwife who teaches at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., says, “Babies aren’t ducklings with one chance to bond. It’s a process, and there’s a lot of variation in how it happens.” However you feel when you first lay eyes on your newborn, the true bond is built in the months that follow, as you care for and get to know your baby.

Cara Yost has experienced it both ways. “I did feel that rush of love the first time I held my first baby, just like in the movies,” says the Winnipeg mom of three. “Then I met my second daughter, Frances, and it was more like, ‘Hello, little stranger.’ But Yost and Frances soon caught up from their slower start. “It makes me sad that moms put so much pressure on themselves,” she says. “It’s OK to feel you don’t know your baby — because you don’t; you have to learn about each other.”

Jen Rowlinson’s first weeks as a mother were so stressful they didn’t seem to leave any room for bonding. Rowlinson, of Sarnia, Ont., had believed she was unable to have children, until she found herself pregnant at 39. Soon after, her relationship ended. “I was single and pregnant,” she says. “Then my baby was born four weeks premature, by C-section. So no, I didn’t have that cosmic feeling. I was too scared.”

At home with her five-pound baby boy, Rowlinson found it took all her energy just to get through the day. “Ryder was small, so I had to set an alarm to wake up and feed him every two-and-a-half hours. I was alone, recovering from a C-section, and exhausted. It was a never-ending marathon.” With the help of her family, Rowlinson got through that rough initiation and has no doubts about the strength of her bond with Ryder, now almost two.

She remembers a couple of pivotal moments: “Ryder was just three weeks old at Christmas, so a lot of people were seeing him for the first time. I realized, as I was showing him around, that I wasn’t thinking of him as ‘the baby’ anymore—he was my son.” Finally getting some decent sleep also made a huge difference. What helped most of all, though, says Rowlinson, was “letting go of what I thought I was supposed to do or be, and accepting that I was doing my best, and that was OK. Then I could allow myself to leave the dishes or laundry and take that time for cuddling and enjoying my baby. It was in those little moments that we bonded the most.”

McNiven thinks those little moments are so important. “A lot of a mother’s time with a newborn can be quite difficult,” she says. “Finding a way to have quiet, pleasant time with the baby can help you feel connected. Just holding a sleeping baby is lovely. You can also bring the baby into the bath with you, if there’s another adult to help. Turn the lights down and hold the baby under the shoulders and just let her float. Most babies love this.”

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Toronto midwife Jasmin Tecson suggests infant massage as another skin-to-skin experience that encourages bonding. It’s a nice activity, especially for fathers, she says, “because it’s intimate, soothing and as physical as feeding.” Cailey Crawford can’t point to one moment or stage where her connection with Maggie suddenly grew. “It’s been a gradual progression,” she says. “It’s all the moments that we’ve had together, building that trust and closeness.” McNiven says that when women have difficulty bonding with their babies, “they may feel deeply guilty, and may not be able to share these feelings.” She tries to reassure them: “Having a baby is a lot to cope with at first. But as you get to know your baby and build up confidence as a parent, the attachment will come. You will find that joy.”

When bonding is slow to come
There are many reasons why moms can find it difficult to connect with their babies, from stress to a colicky, hard-to-read baby. More serious conditions like postpartum depression can also underlie bonding problems. If weeks go by and you’re still feeling that your baby is a “little stranger,” speak to your doctor or midwife. Try to find ways to get the sleep and practical support you need, and seek out new parents to connect with, whether it’s an online community or a new mothers’ group.

A version of this article appeared in the Fall 2013 issue of Today’s Parent Pregnancy, pp. 65-6.

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