Bonding with your baby

Why it's good for the whole family, and how to start the bonding process before, during and after labour

So here’s your baby. All those months of planning and dreaming — and here she is. Perhaps as you look at her for the first time, you’ll be swept away by feelings of connectedness you’ve never had before. Or perhaps you won’t feel like that right away. It’s OK. Bonding with your baby — building that deep, ongoing emotional connection — is a process that probably started before she was born, when you wondered if she would have his eyes or your curly hair, when you pictured her in the room you were decorating. Maybe you even hummed her a little tune — you were starting to connect, even then. And bonding will continue in the day-to-day experiences you share with your baby, from now on.

Because bonding with a baby is so important, we may put a lot of pressure on ourselves, expecting it to happen at a certain time, in a particular way. As well, we have pretty high expectations for ourselves — we expect that we will instantly know what to do and how to feel about a new baby. But for many of us, this is a brand new experience. And there really isn’t one way to do it right. Megan Aston, assistant professor of nursing at Dalhousie University in Halifax, says, “It isn’t realistic to expect to have that comfort zone immediately — it just happens in its own time. The relationship develops, the bonding continues.”

Jaylene Mory, a midwife with Kawartha Community Midwives in Peterborough, Ont., says, “I look at bonding as a long-term process. It’s not a one-time event. There are ongoing opportunities over the days after the birth, and the weeks, months and years to come, to create, enhance and deepen the connection with your baby.”

The First Moments
At the same time, says Mory, it’s ideal if the brand new family has an opportunity to be together in a quiet, peaceful setting soon after the birth. “So when we help mothers at the birth — when everything is normal and there aren’t any medical complications — usually the baby is lifted up onto the mother’s chest and she has immediate skin-to-skin and eye-to-eye contact with the baby.” Mory explains that after an unmedicated birth, the baby is usually in a “quiet alert state,” ready to take everything in. It’s the perfect time for the baby and new parents to check each other out.

But it doesn’t always work that way. Mory explains, “Labour can sometimes be long and exhausting — even overwhelming. A new mom may not feel she can even hold her baby right away. She may need to collect herself first.” Mory suggests, “Perhaps if that’s how the mom is feeling, the dad can put the baby skin-to-skin on his chest and he can have some time to be with the baby.” She puts the experience into perspective: “Some women may feel as though they need some time to get their soul back into their body — it’s such an intense experience. And that’s OK — it doesn’t mean they will not bond with their baby.”

Still, we worry if we don’t have those precious moments right after the birth. Some researchers suggest that if bonding doesn’t happen within those first few hours, it might be tougher to bond later on — not impossible, just tougher. But Daniel Lagacé-Séguin, professor of psychology at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, sees much evidence to the contrary. He explains that children who haven’t had that early chance to bond with their parents — orphans, for instance — can do just fine, developing strong attachments to other people and sound social and emotional health. “Even though all parents would love to have that opportunity to bond within the first couple of hours, if it doesn’t happen it doesn’t mean that children are set up for some kind of maladjustment. There are still plenty of opportunities down the road. They are going to be fine because it matters not only what happens immediately after birth but what happens in the months and years to come.”

Kristine Mryglod and her baby, Tanya, are certainly doing fine. Mryglod didn’t feel a strong connection immediately after her baby was born three months ago. She had a Caesarean section and was groggy and uncomfortable during their first night together. But when she and Tanya got home, they were able to be close and really get to know each other. “When I was trying to figure out what she wanted when, I noticed her special cry when she was hungry. She usually only makes it when I hold her, which I thought was kind of special. Later I felt the bond strengthen when she would look me in the eye while nursing, and if I smiled back at her, she would smile too. We would be smiling at each other, looking each other in the eye.” Sometimes mom and baby would nap together: “I’d wake up an hour later and find she was asleep beside me, using my breast as a pillow. Those were special moments.”

Nurturing a Connection over Time
The baby smiles and we smile back; we learn what she needs and we respond. For many parents, the growth of attachment is a process that feels very natural. Lagacé-Séguin explains, “It’s being sensitive, being responsive, being able to read your baby’s needs and desires and acting on those. It’s making sure that the baby knows that he’s loved — that’s the most important thing.”

That responsiveness is laying the foundation for your baby’s connection to you, and later to others. If that first attachment with parents goes well, it sets the stage for good connections to other people — to siblings, friends and, many years from now, partners. It works like this: Responding to your baby helps him learn to trust — one of the first of life’s big lessons. Your baby learns that he can rely on you, that you’ll comfort him when he’s lonely, you’ll feed him when he’s hungry, you’re there when he needs you. His world is a good place.

As your baby grows up a little, there will be other ways for you to connect. The bond becomes physical and emotional. Lagacé-Séguin explains, “When babies are a couple of months of age, they start to be able to read emotional expression in their parents and they start to be able to feel the emotions that their parents feel.” As time goes on, the bond will be social too — you’ll play together, read stories, go on outings and have conversations. This kind of bonding is also crucial.

Angela Arbuckle says that at first breastfeeding provided the opportunity to feel close to her baby, Erin, who is nine months. As the months have passed, their relationship is flourishing on many levels. “Now that Erin is older, there are other things along with breastfeeding. It’s the way she puts her arms out for me if I’ve been gone for a bit, the way she gets excited in the morning when she wakes up and sees us, the way we know exactly how to make everything better when she’s upset and the quick snuggle in the middle of a busy day. She’s becoming quite the little character, asserting the beginnings of a little independence — as long as we’re nearby — and I think we love her more every day.”

The Daddy Connection
Even before Erin was born, Jeff Arbuckle was getting connected, going with Angela to every midwife’s appointment he could make. When Erin arrived, he was the first one to hold her. Angela, who’d had a Caesarean, recalls, “There I was, lying on my back waiting to be stitched up and there was Jeff, sitting in a chair in the operating room, cuddling Erin like he’d done nothing else his entire life. It was one of the sweetest things I’ve ever seen.”

Jeff works out of town, says Angela, “but he is into full Erin immersion when he’s here. I think Jeff’s secret is that he just takes on anything and everything.” Jeff explains, “I do as much as I can with her during my time at home — diaper changes, feedings and playtime are all times that I bond with Erin. I have little songs that only I sing to her and a special routine while I’m changing her diaper. It might not sound like much, but I know it works for me because when I walk into the room she squeals in delight and her arms reach out for her daddy.” What baby could resist Jeff’s “dabby, dabby, dabby” face-washing song?

And in case it seems like Jeff must have had a whole lot of baby-bonding experience before Erin came into his life, he stresses, “I’d had no previous experience at even holding a baby, let alone being responsible for raising one. Who would have ever known that it would be the easiest transition in my life? Bonding with Erin came naturally, just doing whatever silly thing made her smile.”

At every stage of your life together, you will find ways to connect: When your tiny new baby surveys you calmly in those first minutes; when you sway in the grocery store lineup to calm him because he’s cranky; when you get down on the floor and show him how to stack blocks; when you give your busy little toddler a hug because — brave as he is — the world is a bit scary sometimes. And in the blink of an eye, you’ll be encouraging a gleeful preschooler who’s teetering on a bicycle. It’s all part of the bonding process.

Your Babymoon Plan
After the birth, you’ll want to have energy and time to spend getting to know your baby and falling in love. Peterborough, Ont., midwife, Jaylene Mory, feels that preparation can help new parents connect with their babies. “Plan ahead! What sort of support system can you envision for yourself? Perhaps you can even be laying the groundwork for that.” She offers some practical suggestions about how to look after yourself and your baby and the growing bond between you:

Before the birth
• Think ahead about who you would like to help you after the baby arrives. Who will offer the kind of support you would be most comfortable accepting? If you don’t have family or a partner, consider who else is available. It’s not about indulging yourself — support is important for your well-being and your relationship with your baby. Mory explains, “It’s important that once the baby is born, the mother doesn’t have to worry about the next meal or household chores. She shouldn’t need to be expending energy on things other than looking after her baby and herself and resting.”

• If you’re going to breastfeed — a wonderful way to bond with your baby — find out where to get good information. you want to get off to a smooth start. If you have a midwife, she’ll be an invaluable resource. Connect with La Leche League or find a breastfeeding clinic or lactation consultant in your area. Your health unit may have breastfeeding classes. The goal is to know ahead of time where to get support just in case you need it.

• While few women expect to have a Caesarean birth, Mory recommends that you think about it, just in case, and talk with your caregiver about your concerns.
If you do have a Caesarean, arrange to have your baby with you as soon as possible when you are taken to the recovery room. If you plan to breastfeed, get support early.

During labour
• Think about who will be with your through your labour — it may have an impact on the opportunities that you and your baby will have to connect in those early hours. Mory says, “Research shows one-on-one support through labour decreases interventions in labour — things like epidurals, forceps, operative delivery, pharmacological pain relief. It can shorten the length of labour. It can bring to that room — wherever it may be, at home or in hospital — a sense of calm and purpose. All of this lays the groundwork for a peaceful greeting between mother and baby.”

After the baby arrives
• If you’ve had a hospital birth and you’re discharged early, Mory says you may arrive home “pumped with adrenalin and really excited. Try to remember that your body has just been through a monumental event — you need time to relax and rest now.”

• Your friend or sister is asking what she can do to help? Tell her what you need! The people who love you want to help (that’s part of your bond with them!) so allow them to do things for you and your baby. If you could really use an hour to soak in the tub, a big pan of lasagna or a drive for an older child, let them know!

• Of course everyone will want to offer congratulations, but gently encourage visitors to hold off a bit. Put on the answering machine. Mory says new moms can be overwhelmed by well-meaning visitors and callers.

• Look after yourself. Eat well, sleep whenever you can and connect with other new moms. You are a very important person in your baby’s world! If you feel well and well cared for, you’ll be better able to meet the physical and emotional needs of your baby.