Bonding with your Baby – By Dr Sofia Rallis

What is ‘bonding’ and when does it happen?

Bonding refers to a feeling of unconditional love and attachment. In the present article we are using this term in reference to the bond between a parent and their child. Apart from the emotional connection, bonding also involves discovering what your baby likes and dislikes and learning to respond to your baby’s needs in a caring and appropriate manner. For example, is your little one a social baby who enjoys spending time with other people? Or do they prefer to watch what’s going on from the safety and comfort of mum and dads arms? Observing your baby’s behaviour in various situations will help you figure out what their temperament is like, which will in turn help you work out how to respond to them in a suitable manner.

The bonding experience between a parent and child is important and plays a vital part role in a baby’s development as it helps to lay the foundations for their emotional and mental wellbeing. For instance, when your baby gets what they need from you, whether it be a simple gaze, a smile, or a comforting cuddle they start to feel like the world is a safe place where they can play, learn and explore.

Some mums and dads start developing a connection with their baby during pregnancy, while others feel it the moment their baby is born. For lots of new parents however this connection can take time to develop, whether it is several days, weeks or even months; so if this is you, don’t panic. It is likely that there will never be one ‘specific’ moment where the bond between you and your baby develops; instead it is much more likely to be a gradual process where your feelings of love and connectedness grow over time. This experience often contradicts images portrayed in the media and movies, where a picture of ‘love at first sight’ is often painted, and having a baby is depicted as a time of absolute joy. Unfortunately, these references can contribute to the unrealistic expectations some new parents have, where they expect to feel a strong connection with their baby straight away. While difficult, it is important to resist placing undue pressure on yourself to ‘fall in love’ instantly with your baby. Pressure of this sort can contribute to feelings of depression, anxiety and feeling like a failure as a mother/father, which is not helpful to anyone. Any parent who is feeling flat, anxious, stressed or confused, is likely to find it really difficult to sit in the moment and ‘just be’ with their baby, something that ultimately helps with the bonding experience. Similarly, parents who do not feel the instant attachment they expected can also experience feelings of guilt or shame. It is not uncommon for parents to have thoughts such as:

“Why don’t I instantly love my baby?”
“What’s wrong with me?”
“Why do my friends and the other mums at my mother’s group seem to be in love with their babies?”
“Will I ever develop that special bond that everyone else seems to have?”

The reality is that after having a baby, both parents are adjusting to lots of big changes in their lives, so it’s not surprising that it can take time to develop a strong connection to this new little person. Just like in any other relationship, a deep bond between two individuals takes time to grow. New parents often need some time to get to know their baby; another key factor in developing a strong attachment. It is also normal for each parent to bond with their child in their own way and own pace. For example, it is quite common for fathers to feel like they are not bonding with their baby as quickly or as deeply as their partner. This is often due to the fact that babies typically require a lot of direct attention from their mother in the early days for feeding (especially if breastfed) and settling.

Why haven’t I bonded with my baby instantly?
There are a number of reasons why you might not bond with your baby straight away. Some of the most common reasons include:

  • If you’ve had a premature delivery,
  • If you’ve had a difficult or traumatic birth,
  • If your baby had a health condition and required medical treatment and/or had to be looked after in a special care nursery,
  • If you’re feeling overwhelmed by your new role and responsibilities as a parent and wondering how will manage all the new demands,
  • If you’re experiencing postnatal depression and/or anxiety or any other mental health conditions,
  • If your baby has ongoing difficulties with feeding, sleeping and settling.

Even if none of the above circumstances apply to you, developing a strong bond can still take a while. Be patient and mindful of how you are feeling and try to think of some ways that you can connect with this new little person that you have created. If you are feeling stuck for ideas, talk to family or friends about what they do for fun with their babies/children, or have a look at some of the suggestions below.

What can I do to enhance the bond with my baby?

As with most things, there is no one ‘right’ way to connect with your baby. Bonding happens when there is a calm and relaxed space and you have the opportunity to focus one-to-one on your baby. One of the things that is most important is that you engage in some dedicated and mindful time together. Some activities that have been shown to promote bonding and positive parent-infant interactions include:

Skin-to-skin contact: Where possible, hold your baby close to you, with your skin next to theirs (e.g., baby lying on your chest). Doing this within 30 minutes after they are born is ideal and can help with the bonding process. However we know that is not always possible, especially if you’ve had a Caesarean or the baby requires special care. So if this doesn’t happen, don’t worry. Try to have some skin-to-skin contact when it is safe to do so. Continue doing so in the days and weeks ahead, including when you are back at home with your baby.

Talk and smile to your baby: Your baby recognises your voice, even as a newborn. Research shows that babies can also recognise a smile. So even though they might not understand what you are saying, spend some time talking to your baby, gently stroke their cheek and head, blow kisses, lean in and smile at them. As they get older pull some funny faces at your baby and see how they react. They might surprise you by copying your actions such as sticking out their tongue when you do so which always adds to the fun!

Sing to your baby: Singing doesn’t have to involve a nursery rhyme and it doesn’t have to be in tune (phew!). You can try singing a little song or perhaps even just humming a melody to your baby. What do you notice? Over time you will probably be able to pick up on which songs your baby likes and responds well to. Try to enjoy the moment, even if you don’t like to sing; chances are if you find some joy in these moments, your baby will too.

Dance with your baby: If you don’t feel like singing, pop some music on and try dancing round with your baby (of course you could always do both!). This can be an enjoyable little activity as it helps trigger certain feel-good hormones in your body. Dancing and holding your baby close to you can also be helpful if they are feeling upset or tired. Your baby may like being twirled around and carefully flipped over if they are in a more playful mood, which you are also likely to enjoy.

Baby massage: Lots of parents find that baby massage really helps them connect with their baby. Babies themselves also usually enjoy a massage, even the ‘non-cuddly’ ones. The one-to-one contact can help you ‘tune in’ to your baby, in what is usually a calm and pleasant setting. Some babies love massage and can happily enjoy it for a solid block of time; others may only enjoy it for short periods. Either way, pay attention to your baby’s cues and try to sense when they are relaxed and enjoying the massage and when they have had enough.

Playing and learning: You might like to try playing some games with your baby; this can be a fun and bonding experience, while also supporting their development. For example, ‘peek-a-boo’ games provide an opportunity for lots of lovely eye contact with your baby. It also helps your baby learn that someone or something continues to exist, even if he/she can’t see them. They might try covering their own face, as they begin to grasp the concept even more. Sensory play refers to play that is focused on exploring new textures and surfaces. When babies are very young, they experience more through their sense of touch than anything else, so you can try gently passing different materials over your baby’s hands, tummy or cheek. You can talk to them about hard and soft, warm and cool, rough and smooth textures. Your baby may want to grab the items and you can then make a game of taking them back, letting them grab them again, taking them back and so on. You can also introduce colours, numbers, counting games or anything else you like as part of this play time.

Read books together: Getting into the habit of reading books with your little one is a wonderful time to spend some time together. You can try holding your baby close while you read to him/her, and if you’re up to it you can use an animated voice to really liven things up. The little ones can also get involved by helping you turn the pages. Your baby will enjoy hearing your voice, regardless if you’re reading a baby book, or your favourite magazine.

Go for a walk together: Head out for a walk with your baby in the pram, or if you prefer with a baby carrier. While it might take some effort, have a go at describing what you see to your baby. For example, you might try talking to your baby about the weather, the trees or houses that you are walking past, the birds that you can hear etc. Pay attention to what he/she is looking at and taking an interest in. Try and see the world from your baby’s perspective where everything is new to them.

When should I worry?

As mentioned earlier, try not to worry if you find that it is taking some time to develop the strong connection you had envisioned with your baby. It is unlikely that you have something to be concerned about, especially if you are feeling ‘the joy’ at certain times and you notice yourself wanting to do what’s best for them, care for them and protect them (these are typically signs of the bond that already exists) .

If however after a few weeks you notice that you are not experiencing any loving or affectionate feelings, or are perhaps feeling detached and resentful towards your baby, and/or your feelings in general are interfering with your ability to look after yourself or your baby, then you may need some extra support. Talk to your GP, family and child health nurse, psychologist, or another trusted professional about how you are feeling and the concerns you have. It can be really difficult to talk about these issues but reaching out and getting help is vital. Difficult experiences such as these are not a sign that something is wrong with you, or that you don’t love your baby. Instead it might be a sign that some formal support is needed to help with the transition to parenthood. This might include strategies to help you get to know your baby and their cues, how they fit into new your life and ways to find moments of pleasure, in what can be a pretty difficult time for lots of mums and dads.

 Summary:

Bonding refers to a positive, loving and emotional attachment between two individuals, in the current context between a parent and their child. A healthy bond makes the relationship and interactions more gratifying, while also promoting emotional health and brain development. In turn, this assists a baby to develop key processes such as memory, thought and language.

The reality is that contrary to popular belief many new mums and dads don’t feel an instant bond, so try to keep in mind that connection takes time. Be patient and avoid placing unhelpful expectations on yourself about how ‘you should’ be feeling. You might find it useful to come up with some activities that you and your baby can do together such as going for a walk, reading a book, playing with a new toy, or having a sing and dance around the lounge room. You can also use everyday opportunities like feeding time, nappy changes and bath-time, to engage, talk and play little games with your baby. Caring for a new baby is always a busy time and can be hard work, so it’s important to remember that amongst everything else going on you want to take some time to ‘just be’ together.

The more time you spend together, and the more you hold, talk, play and get to know your baby, the more your love and connection will grow over time. If at any time you are feeling particularly disconnected, distressed, concerned that your mental health might be impacting your ability to connect and enjoy your baby, or that your feelings about your bond with your baby are impacting your mental health, then please reach out and talk to a suitable health professional. Support is available and there are always things you can do to improve the way you are feeling and better connect with your baby and family.

References and sources for additional information:

  • Austin M-P., Highet N., and the Expert Working Group (2017). Mental Health Care in the Perinatal Period: Australian Clinical Practice Guideline. Melbourne: Centre of Perinatal Excellence.
  • (2011). Clinical practice guidelines for depression and related disorders – anxiety, bipolar disorder and puerperal psychosis – in the perinatal period. A guideline for primary care health professionals. Melbourne: beyondblue: The national depression initiative.
  • Beyondblue (2012).Managing mental health conditions during pregnancy and early parenthood: A guide for women and their families
  • Raising Children Network: http://raisingchildren.net.au/articles
  • Circle of Security International: https://www.circleofsecurityinternational.com/resources

Disclaimer:

Please note that the information provided in this article, and any associated references, is general and is not intended to be therapeutic in nature. If you feel that you would benefit from additional information, support and/or require urgent assistance please contact your GP, or one of the following services in your state.

 

Crisis and Support Services

National Services:

Lifeline

13 11 14 (24 hours a day, 7 days a week)

www.lifeline.org.au

 

Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Australia (PANDA)

1300 726 306 (Monday-Friday 9am – 7.30pm (AEST / ADST)

www.panda.org.au

Pregnancy, Birth and Baby Helpline
1800 882 436

https://www.pregnancybirthbaby.org.au

 

Centre for Perinatal Psychology

1300 852 660

https://www.centreforperinatalpsychology.com.au/

 

MensLine

1300 78 99 78

www.mensline.org.au

 

Suicide Call Back Service

1300 659 467 (24 hours a day, 7 days a week)

www.suicidecallbackservice.org.au

 

Additional State Based Services:
Victoria:
Maternal and Child Health Line 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 13 22 29
Parentline VIC 8am to 12am Monday to Friday, 10am to 10pm weekends 13 22 89

NEW SOUTH WALES:
Karitane Careline 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 1300 227 464
Parentline NSW 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 1300 130 052

ACT:
healthdirect Australia 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 1800 022 222
Parentline ACT 9am – 9om Monday to Friday (except public holidays) (02) 6287 3833

QUEENSLAND:
Child Health Line 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 13 43 25 84
Parentline QLD & NT 8am to 10pm, seven days a week 1300 30 1300

SOUTH AUSTRALIA:
Child and Youth Health Service 9am – 4.30pm Monday to Friday 1300 733 606
Parent Helpline SA 24 hours a day, seven days a week 1300 364 100

WESTERN AUSTRALIA:
healthdirect Australia 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 1800 022 222
Parent Help Centre WA 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 1800 654 432

NORTHERN TERRITORY:
healthdirect Australia 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 1800 022 222
Parentline QLD & NT 8am to 10pm, seven days a week 1300 30 1300

TASMANIA:
Parenting Line TAS 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 1300 808 178

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