As a parent educator and infant development expert I get this question a lot, and it's a good one. Before having your baby, you may have pictured an idyllic scene: coos and kisses, hugs and connection. But in reality, new babies sleep and cry a lot. And new parents often feel completely overwhelmed just figuring out the practical aspects of how to feed, soothe, and change an infant.
So where do bonding and attachment come in? The good news is that mothers and infants are programmed to connect with each other. It may take some time and support, but it will happen.
Why bonding matters
Besides making it easier to enjoy one another, a good bond between mother and child allows both of you to function at your highest level. This is what psychologists call "secure attachment." Babies who are securely attached grow up to have good self-awareness, trust, and comfort with others. They're also able to handle a variety of emotions and develop healthy relationships later in life.
Mothers who feel strongly bonded to their babies are generally better equipped to handle the new and unexpected challenges of parenting. They consider the child to be an active member of the relationship and can be mindful and joyful during their time together.
Why it takes time
Bonding looks different for each set of baby and parent. Sometimes it happens quickly and sometimes more slowly, over weeks or months. You're getting used to a shift in your identity from an individual who looked after her own needs to someone who is responsible for the needs of another (very demanding) human being. And sometimes that high level of demand can bring a feeling of overwhelming duty before it brings a sense of attachment.
Other circumstances beyond your control, such as a premature baby who cannot be with you right away, a traumatic birth experience, or postpartum depression, can also delay the development of an initial bond. And that's ok. Try not to worry or feel guilty. Know that bonding will happen with time (and support if you need it).
Here are five ways to help the bonding process:
Stop, look, and listen. Contrary to popular belief, knowing how to respond to a baby does not always come naturally or instinctually. After all, this is a new relationship, and the two of you are learning about each other. Pay attention to his cries, sounds, facial expressions, and body language (like rubbing his eyes, kicking his legs, turning away), especially before he sleeps, eats, or poops. Over time, you will learn to distinguish a hungry cry from an overtired wail and will know what he needs. By consistently responding to those needs, you teach him that he can trust you to take care of him.
Of course, you won't always read your baby's cues right – that's part of the learning process. When it doesn't work, reflect on what happened and what you might you have missed or ignored. Then use that information to guide your response next time.
Pay attention to yourself too. Not only are you learning to read your baby's cues, he is learning to read yours as well. Your baby will sense when you are stressed, overwhelmed, or sad. (And what new mom isn't at one time or another?)
So take care of yourself too. If you can't sleep when your baby sleeps, at least rest for a few minutes. Ask friends and relatives for the help and support you need. Make time for the little things that make you feel good – showers, shaved legs, walks outside.
Spend some time getting to know each other. Of course, your first responsibility is to meet your baby's basic needs. But you also need time to simply enjoy this new person. Some studies show that a mother's inclination to kiss her new baby is similar to an animal mother licking her baby. Each mother spends those first moments touching and smelling her new baby as a way of getting to know him.
Also take time each day to cuddle, talk, laugh, play, hug, smile, and show affection in a way that feels comfortable. Some ideas include wearing your baby in a sling, snuggling in bed, listening to music or taking a bath together, trying out classes for mom and baby (such as yoga or an organized playgroup), going for a stroll in the park, or picking out books at the library. The more you are enjoying yourself, the easier it will be to enjoy the time with your baby.
Don't be afraid to ask for help. If you're concerned that the bonding process is not going well, talk with your pediatrician or family doctor or join a mom-and-baby group facilitated by a parenting expert. Everything is probably just fine, but getting a professional opinion can give you peace of mind. And if you are having some difficulties, these experts can work with you or refer you to a child development or mental health professional.
Overall, remember to step back and take a deep breath now and then. Recognize the gift you have been given, and give yourself a little time to get to know each other.