Laying the seeds of connection
We used to think that bonding, also known as emotional attachment, needed to happen quickly after birth. But our understanding of the ways parents and babies connect with each other has changed in line with new evidence. Now we know that there is no one, ‘perfect’ timeframe, for this to happen.
Like any new relationship, it can take time to get to know each other and build a connection.
Some parents take longer than others to feel a sense of closeness with their babies. However, this is not a reflection on the quality of their relationship, simply a result of everyone being unique.
Aren’t you just adorable?
Babies look cute for a very good reason, that is, to help their parents and caregivers fall in love with them. Their button nose, rosebud lips and big eyes, mean that it is easy for us to feel close and loving to our babies and to ensure their survival. Parents are also ‘hard wired’ to respond to their baby’s needs, so when they cry or show they need us, we prioritise their care. Babies cannot deliberately behave as if they are being manipulative or ‘naughty’. Much of their behaviour is driven by reflexes and responses, which help to get their needs met in the shortest space of time.
Why is bonding important?
Other than ensuring their survival, it’s important for babies to attach to parents and caregivers because it supports their growth and healthy development. Hormones and chemicals are released in the baby’s brain which help to hard wire connections between their brain cells, laying the foundations for learning. Attachment also helps babies to feel secure and safe, freeing up their energy to grow and play. It also supports skill building in (eventually), learning what’s involved in emotional regulation – the ability to manage feelings in an appropriate and safe way.
Babies don’t know what they need, only what they want. They also have fairly simple needs – to be fed, kept warm and safe and to feel comfortable. As they grow, their needs become increasingly complex and layered.
How does bonding happen?
Bonding is not a one-way process. Babies are designed by nature to seek connection and build relationships with those closest to them and who are best placed to ensure their survival.
Try not to overthink how you could connect with your baby. Many of your own responses, as well as your baby’s, are generated by the sub-conscious brain which has much to do with feelings and emotions, rather than logic. Your senses, more than your intellect, will help to support the relationship you and your baby share. Focus on opportunities which involve, touch, sight, hearing and smell. During feed times, your baby’s sense of taste will help them to connect with you.
Top tips to build emotional attachment
- Care well for your own needs. If your ‘emotional cup’ isn’t full, or you’re struggling with anxiety and/or depression, you won’t be able to focus fully on parenting.
- Try to have some skin-to-skin cuddle time each day with your baby. There is very good evidence that this helps with connection, especially in the early days after birth.
- Breastfeed your baby if you choose to. This helps to release hormones which will support bonding.
- Hold your baby against the left side of your chest a few times each day. That way, they can hear your heartbeat and help them to calm if they’re unsettled.
- Bath and massage your baby at least every couple of days. Quarantine time to do this and try not to rush. The goal is to wash your baby’s skin, but just as importantly, for them to relax and feel comfortable.
- Read stories to your baby every day. Sing them songs, hum some tunes, play silly games and just have fun. Remember, not every interaction needs to be educational.
- Lie on your bed or couch and hold, rock and cuddle your baby. When you’re lying down, you’ll be more comfortable and less likely to be trying to do other things at the same time. Just be careful you don’t fall asleep with your baby in the bed/on the couch with you.
- Carry your baby in a sling or pouch and have them close.
- Position their cot in your own room for the first 6-12 months of their life. According to safe sleeping experts, room sharing is protective against sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
- Look for opportunities to play and have fun with your baby. They are hard wired to respond to your voice, touch and contact.
- Aim to be sensitive to the cues and signals your baby is giving you. Although they won’t yet have verbal skills, they will be trying to communicate with you in other ways. Seeking eye contact, cooing, facial grimacing and body movements are all other ways babies get their messages across.
- Try not to see each day as a series of tasks to get through. In the small, quiet moments when not much else is happening, the ‘blue toothing’ of connection happens between a parent and their baby.
- Spend time with your baby which isn’t always around meeting their needs. Just sitting holding, looking and cuddling your baby will help you to feel a sense of closeness to them.
- Once you have worked out what your baby likes, try doing this regularly. It may be reading a particular story, playing with a toy or a certain game. What’s important is that you allow your baby to lead when it comes to play and not to always initiate or lead them in play times.
What if I don’t feel connected to my baby?
If you don’t feel a building sense of attachment with your baby, speak with your GP or Child Health Nurse. Sometimes there are benefits in seeing a psychologist or Early Intervention Specialist who has specific training in mother/parent- infant bonding. There may also be benefits in completing an Edinburgh Depression Scale, this is a commonly used tool which is used to help identify depression in new parents.
Give yourself time if you don’t feel connected to your baby. In the early days, parenting can be overwhelming and the adjustment to parenting impacts every new parent differently. Be patient and kind to yourself and get help if you’re struggling.
Written for Tooshies by Jane Barry, Midwife and Child Health Nurse, May 2022.