This article expands on the importance of bonding between the mother and her newborn baby.
By Chitra Satyavasan
On a rainy afternoon in Chennai, mothers bring their babies one by one to a cottage on the East Coast Road. Andrea Domotor, who conducts the play programme PEKiP, greets them warmly as they enter. Once the babies are set down on the soft mats, they scramble in different directions. Little Elias crawls towards every toy shown to him. He even makes an attempt to stand before the mirror, but lands on the floor with glee.
His mother Sarah Hansen mirrors his expressions of delight at his activities. After confidently exploring the surroundings, he plonks himself on his mom’s lap. As Andrea says, “Sarah’s praise and pleasure at his attempts to stand or when he looks at her for approval lets him know that she supports and loves him. That’s bonding at work!”
What exactly is bonding? “Bonding - the formation of a close, emotional connection between you and your baby - provides the baby with a sense of love, comfort and security. It is the quality of this lasting attachment that has the greatest effect on your child’s subsequent psychological development,” says Dr Richard Woolfson, a UK-based child psychologist.
The bonding between the newborn and the parent, especially the mother, is necessary for the survival of the infant. Bonding is important for both moms and babies:
Human babies, the most developmentally immature of all primates, require significant care, and they gain from early contact:
“During the early days and months of life, the comfort and nurturance parents provide make it possible for infants to learn to regulate their arousal, and to focus on and explore the world around. The mother’s sensitivity in responding to her baby’s needs is a key determinant in the development of the baby’s sense of security and increases baby’s attachment to her,” says
Dr Kevin Nugent, Director of the Brazelton Institute which works with infants and families for baby care, and lecturer at Harvard Medical School.
“Infant brain development is ‘experience-expectant’ and ‘experience-dependant’ with the consequence that postnatal care and parents’ interactions with babies affect and encourage their social and cognitive development,” says Dr Beena Koshy, Associate Professor, Developmental Paediatrics, Christian Medical College, Vellore.
“Early positive mother-infant relationship also predicts the development of the child’s ability to regulate his emotions and understand the emotions of others,” says Dr Ann Bigelow, professor of Developmental Psychology in Canada.
“Close body contact of infants with moms helps regulate baby’s body temperature, digestion, respiration and crying behaviour,” adds Dr Koshy.
“The parent-infant bonding, though it contributes to risks for mood and anxiety disorders in moms immediately postpartum, it also provides potential resiliency and protection against the development of psychopathology (mental disorders), throughout life. It is also a psychological and biological transition for the parent. Breastfeeding also has long-term health benefits for the mother, like protection from breast cancer,” says Dr Koshy.
The answer is yes and no. When the baby and the mother are perfectly healthy, they bond effortlessly. The overwhelming rush of affection you feel for your baby is the work of the hormone oxytocin, released during pregnancy and labour.
“A successful bonding is an evolving relationship spread between 0-24/36 months. Even if baby and parents are separated at birth by health issues like prematurity, a loving bond evolves over time. Most mothers are naturally attuned to bond with their bundle of joy,” says Dr Koshy.
“Studies done on Romanian orphans reveal that early emotional and physical neglect has long-standing effects on cognition, emotional behaviour and even in brain structures, in spite of optimization of environment later in life. These studies show the sensitive period of brain growth and development to be in the first 2-3 years of age. A lack of attachment and bonding definitely has a role in emotional and behavioural disorders (like hyperactivity, and Autism). But it’s too early to define how much,” says Dr Koshy.
But not all moms experience those spontaneous outpourings of joy. This is considered normal. A painful and tiring labour, anxiety about taking care of twins or the baby’s gender – any of these can disappoint the mother, and prevent her from immediately cooing to her baby.
Sujatha Damodaran, a 28-year-old Chennai-based home-maker, is one of those moms who found it difficult to bond with her baby.
“A few months into pregnancy, and my relatives began predicting it was a girl. They told me that an extraordinarily large tummy meant a baby girl! So I prepared myself for a daughter – right from what I would name her to imagining how I would dress her. But when the nurse held up a baby boy, I remember thinking whether it was really my baby – perhaps, it is a mistake. Suddenly, I did not know what I was meant to do with him,” says Sujatha. But in less than a week, she became a hands-on mom, and her baby won her over.
Aparna Mohanty, a 26-year-old Delhi-based media professional, found it difficult to bond simply because she was new to motherhood.
“Though I was totally prepared and had even resigned from work, my initial reaction on seeing my daughter Misha was plain confusion. But a couple of weeks later, I had a strange feeling, an entirely new and incredible one; the result of having a tiny human being dependent entirely on you, needing you all the time. I realized that I would do anything and go all-out to keep Misha safe!” says Aparna.
As Dr Woolfson says, “Many mothers are physically frail and psychologically vulnerable after the delivery, and therefore they need additional time to adjust to their new role as a parent. The formation of an emotional connection can take weeks, perhaps even months.”
According to Dr Koshy, ‘Baby’, ‘mother’ and family factors may impede successful bonding:
‘BABY’ FACTORS include premature birth and health problems. Newborns with heart failure, respiratory diseases or infections are taken care of in special care units. “This prevents rooming in/ bedding in, and may interrupt bonding. In my experience, a cleft lip has a drastic effect on parents. Mothers expect a cute little bundle of joy and, at times, are shocked by the cleft lip appearance. It is not much of a health issue though, and is repaired at birth to promote bonding and acceptance,” says Dr Koshy.
THE ‘MOTHER’ FACTORS include:
‘FAMILY’ FACTORS include overzealous grandparents and too many visitors. “I have seen a room full of 15-20 people with a young mum trying to feed a baby and each one giving suggestions,” says Dr Koshy.
No matter what the reasons are, new mothers can change the way they feel about the tiny arrival. “Doubts and anxieties are perfectly normal, and are nothing to feel guilty about. They’ll soon pass, as your confidence in your own parenting skills grows with experience. Bonding is a gradual process in most instances,” assures Dr Woolfson.
Here are a few tips for bonding with your baby:
Mom and dad should prepare to welcome the new arrival. The to-do list includes:
Talking to baby in soft tones, using ‘baby talk’. “Remember how in the Mahabharata Abhimanyu learns about warfare from inside Subhadra’s womb by overhearing Arjun’s talk? Babies can hear external voices from the womb. Once the baby enters the outside world, it feels reassured by hearing the familiar voice of mom,” says Dr Kumudha.
Both can sign up for “relaxation/exercise or stretching classes, which will help them bond with the baby, and with each other,” says Dr Koshy.
Avoiding arguments. “Avoid yelling as by week 12, a baby is extremely sensitive to the changes experienced by the mother. If the mother is upset, it will disturb the baby,” says Dr Kumudha.
“Expectant dads can join and support their wives for antenatal check-ups and ultrasound scans. It is pure joy for expectant parents to see their developing baby in the ‘tummy’ by visuals on the screen,” says Dr Koshy.
Encourage breastfeeding as early as possible after birth. Aparna was advised by her doctor to breastfeed her daughter after she recovered from a Caesarean-section.
“She told me to breastfeed Misha, both for health and bonding benefits. She said that in my womb, my baby had become accustomed to my heartbeat, which gave her a sense of security. While breastfeeding, she would feel the same heartbeat and feel reassured,” she says.
Skin-to-skin contact (SSC): In SSC, ‘baby feels the touch of mom and dad, and is much more comfortable in breathing and sleeping when in close contact with the mom,’ says Dr Koshy.
“Shortly after birth, the mother’s chest area is 1-2 degrees warmer than the rest of her body, which makes it a natural warming place for the infant. During this time, when in SSC with her infant, mother’s chest heats up as the infant’s body temperature cools down and mother’s chest cools down as the baby warms up. This keeps the baby’s body temperature fairly even. This ability to thermo regulate the baby is automatic,” says Dr Bigelow.
Dr Kumudha believes the mother should receive the baby for 10-15 minutes on her chest to look at and hold, immediately after birth, provided both are healthy and a certain degree of sterility is maintained.
“In fact, the baby can be put to the breast as soon as the placenta comes out, in a normal delivery. As most mothers will tell you, this initial contact is a pleasurable experience,” she adds.
Cuddle your baby. “The warmth, the firm grip, and the close bodily contact – all add to your baby’s sense of contentment, and bring her closer to you,” says Dr Woolfson.
You can strengthen the bond by tackling the basic challenges like feeding and changing nappies. “These are mundane activities, and yet they bring you and your baby in close physical and emotional contact. Your comfort and ease in each other’s company will increase with each passing day,” says Dr Woolfson.
Traditionally in India, we have used ‘oil massage and bath time to bond with the little one,’ says Dr Koshy.
Sleep time is a good time for bonding. Both parents can take turns in singing lullabies. You don’t need to possess a fantastic voice or tune to attract your baby’s attention, says Dr Koshy.
Your baby may not understand a word you say. “But he’s familiar with your voice from the womb. So talk to him as your voice comforts him,” says Woolfson.
“Look into her eyes, smile, laugh, giggle, talk, tickle, massage, sing and have fun,” says Dr Beena. In short, play with your baby.
“I love it when my baby reaches for my glittering earrings, or grabs hold of my finger when I place it in his tiny palm,” says Tanushree Sen, a Delhi-based mother of one-year-old Shubham.
A baby brings much joy. “But, there will be times when her tears and screams will make you feel clueless and helpless. Night feeding and broken sleep freaked me out. In the first two weeks, I often turned to my mom for help. Soon, I learned to calm Misha. The trick to knowing your baby better is to spend more time with her!” says Aparna.
“Try to settle her, perhaps by talking gently, singing or rocking her softly back and forth. You will gradually understand what her cries mean, and soon will learn the best way to soothe her when she is distressed. Don’t give up. Keep trying different soothing techniques until one works,” says Dr Woolfson.
Bonding means you are attuned to your baby’s emotions and you can show him that you have achieved this level of insight.
“So when he smiles at you, smile back twice as broadly. When he’s upset, tell him that you can see he is upset and try to comfort him. And when he’s interested in a toy, help him play with it. The more you accurately reflect his feelings, the better,” says Dr Woolfson.
As your baby learns to crawl, sit, walk and talk, she’ll become more interactive and seek your constant attention.
“As per Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development, children learn to balance between trust and mistrust, and learn to have hope in this period. Once the needs of the little one are consistently met, she learns to trust her parents,” says Dr Koshy.
Dr Koshy has the last word: “Bonding is a two-way process and involves the child's temperament in a big way. Parents have to be sensitive and not be overindulgent. As a society, we need to find a middle ground where the parents’ work aspirations have to be matched and counter-matched with the sensitive period of child's development including her emotional development, where bonding is the cornerstone.”
“Some fathers fear that there is a very short critical period during which the bonding has to take place, and that if it does not happen then, it will never happen. This is based on the process of ‘imprinting’, found in the animal world. With imprinting, young animals become emotionally attached to any caring adult figure (even to humans) only during a specific short period. If they miss out at that time, they never relate to adult animals later in life. However, there is no evidence at all that humans have a similar critical period.
Babies can - and usually do - form an emotional attachment with both parents, although it often takes longer with dad,” says Dr Woolfson.
“Earlier, when I would hold my daughter Misha, she would start wailing. Back in her mom’s arms, she would calm down and coolly ignore me. I thought she didn’t want me,” says Aparna’s husband Abhinandan, a defence officer posted in Amritsar.
“There’s no rejection involved; the baby gets used to the person who cares for him the most and simply prefers a familiar face. So he stops crying when mum cuddles him,” says Dr Woolfson.
Abhinandan decided to get involved in Misha’s care – and soon, bonding happened. “The best part was when I would coo her name and she would quickly turn her face towards mine, smiling. It took some effort, but it’s worth it!” he adds.
Don’t wait for your baby to grow. “Fathers also can do skin-to-skin contact and reflect the baby’s emotions in face-to face play. Most importantly, the father can be supportive of the mother and her mothering. This emotional support is crucial to the well-being of both mother and infant,” says Dr Bigelow.
Give the baby a bath, sing songs, or change diapers.
Walk with the baby in a carrier close to your body. Abhinandan straps his baby to his body when he goes grocery shopping. “My parents resent this as they think I am doing my wife’s ‘job’, but I don’t mind. Since I get to spend only a few weekends every two months, I make the most to bond with Misha,” he adds.
Help with the feeding. Ask your baby’s mom to express milk which you can feed to your baby in a bottle.
Co-sleeping also helps dads reconnect with their baby at night.
“I spend the whole day with my baby Elias as I am a stay-at-home mom. But at night, my husband sleeps in another room with our baby by his side in a crib. That’s his way of bonding with our son!” says Sarah.
“A newborn baby can see, hear, smell, feel and taste and learn step by step using all these senses and can even correctly identify her mother by smell. The focal length of a newborn’s eyes is approximately 8-12 inches. Definitely she can look up and focus on dad’s face from his arms. Dads can room in or bed in with the little one so that there is better bonding,” says Dr Koshy.
Many working mums worry that the bond with their baby is weakened as they chase deadlines at the workplace. That is why parents who place their infant in a day care, once they resume work after maternity leave, feel guilty. Yet such fears are unnecessary. Here are extra tips from Dr Kumudha and Dr Woolfson for working moms:
After a tiring day at work, you may need to do a bit of household chores. Whatever you do, set aside time every day for you and your baby to be together.
It’s true! So have oodles of confidence in your own parenting ability. Don’t get bogged down by those who make you feel guilty for not being with the baby 24/7. It’s the quality of the shared time that matters. Show your baby that you love and value her; that is the biggest boost to bonding.
A young mom was worried when she found that her baby clung more to the ayah than to her. Another mom felt that her mother-in-law was scheming to prevent bonding between her baby and her. But babies happily bond with more than one adult. She may forge a connection with you, her grandmother and the ayah - all these bonds support each other. So don’t feel threatened. As far as your baby is concerned, the more loving relationships in her life, the better! Each time you collect your baby, greet her with enthusiasm and make a big fuss of her. She will tune into you within minutes!
Dr Koshy offers a few general tips for moms:
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