Expectant parents can be forgiven if they panic when they hear the word "bonding."
Library shelves and web sites are devoted to the importance of bonding with a newborn and the trauma that may result when it doesn't take place. Many parents now fear that if they don't bond immediately, their children may be scarred for life. No wonder the issue has wrought so much stress.
Studies in the last two decades do emphasize the importance of bonding -- the development of an emotional attachment -- on the parent-child relationship. Research has shown that bonding fosters a sense of security and positive self-esteem and provides an excellent first model for intimate relationships forged later on in life. Today, our understanding of breastfeeding, infant massage, parenting to promote attachment, and hospitals' approach to childbirth have all changed because of research on the importance of bonding.
But bonding doesn't happen in a split second, nor does it have to occur during a particular and critical window of time. Researchers say there is a "sensitive period" in the moments immediately after birth when mothers and newborns seem particularly primed to tune into each other. But this doesn't mean that if you miss this period, you lose the opportunity to develop a close relationship with your child.
What promotes bonding?
Bonding is a process that happens over time. It is shaped and fostered by the many small moments of connection: the first time you gaze at your baby and she looks back; the first time you explore her tiny fingers, and she clasps your thumb. It happens when you nurse or bottle-feed your baby, and she relaxes into you. It happens when you watch her make little faces in her sleep.
Bonding happens at your individual pace. But there are activities that will encourage your infant to bond with you.
- Hold your baby close, even while sleeping. Keep your newborn in your hospital room if possible to encourage early and ongoing contact. Even at an early age, babies can recognize the sound of your heart beating, watch your face, and respond to eye contact.
- Talk, sing, read, or recite a poem to your baby. Learning the sound of your voice is another way your child will learn to recognize and get to know you.
- Breastfeed your baby if you can. If you cannot breastfeed, bottle-feeding your baby still provides a timeless opportunity to connect.
- Touch your baby. Any kind of gentle touch is good, for it will help her grow accustomed to your touch and scent. Infant massage is an excellent way to soothe and get to know your baby. Let your baby touch you back, however she is able.
- Respond to your baby's cries. Crying is one of a baby's few means of communication. Go to your child when she cries. Comfort and hold her. Ignore the advice of those who tell you to let your baby "cry it out." Your newborn is too young to be manipulating you, and your responsiveness will not spoil her. In fact, every time you respond to your crying infant, you are helping to forge a trusting relationship.
Fathers and bonding
With the exception of breastfeeding, all the activities listed above apply to fathers as well as mothers. Research shows that mothers and fathers often have very different ways of holding, playing, and interacting with their babies, and that babies appreciate and thrive on these differences in style. Mothers usually stroke their baby's entire body, while fathers often cradle the baby's entire head in one hand. Both are relaxing and therapeutic to a baby.
As with any other relationship, bonding with your baby is a matter of building trust and familiarity, and this occurs naturally as you spend time together. There is no right way to bond with your baby, no tricks or magic formula. The only thing you have to do is show up and care for your baby.
Parents should also pay attention to how the other one is doing, supporting each other in bonding with the child. They should also think of having a baby as an opportunity to bond with each other as parents.
What can I do if I'm separated from my baby after a premature delivery or complicated birth?
Of course, caring for your child will be more difficult if she has to stay in an incubator in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), or if you have suffered complications that involve a long recovery period. But most hospitals today recognize the importance of early contact between parents and child. As soon as it is safe, they will encourage you to touch and hold your child. Talk to your pediatrician and the staff of the intensive care unit if you have questions or concerns.
Your NICU team will patiently listen to your concerns, answer your questions, and teach you the best ways to touch your baby if you can't hold her. If your baby can be held, they will help you maneuver around any IVs or other medical devices that may be attached to her, and also help you learn to bathe and diaper your baby. If your baby is unable to breastfeed, the nurses will likely encourage you to pump your breast milk so they can feed it to her through a feeding tube as soon as she's able to eat.
According to pediatrician Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, nurturing these connections between parents and babies is a legacy that will benefit children throughout their lives.
"I like to think that every baby has a right to one or two people passionately in love with them," he says. "And if they have that, then their futures are pretty much made."
Sears, William MD. Bonding with Your Newborn. Attachment Parenting International. http://www.attachmentparenting.org/artbonding.shtml
Sears, William, M.D. 7 Ways to bond with your baby.http://www.parenting.com/article/7-ways-to-bond-with-your-baby
Nemours Foundation. Bonding With Your Baby. http://kidshealth.org/parent/pregnancynewborn/communicating/bonding.html
Life Matters. Radio interview with T. Berry Brazelton, MD. http://www.abc.net.au/rn/talks/lm/stories/s574155.htm