Blokes, Babies and Bonding

Blokes, Babies and Bonding

I looked down at my son cradled in my arms. Face red. Puckered. Eyes shut tight, then opening to stare, unfocussed, past my shoulder. A cry. First quiet and then demanding that I do something ” anything. His body seemed to shake in pain. He cried and cried and cried. I made shooshing noises and walked up and down the corridor, holding him vertical to my chest with his tiny head resting on my shoulder. My hand automatically and gently patted his heaving little body. Sometimes he bellowed in my ear, at other times he sobbed and sometimes he shuddered to a momentary silence. After a while I tried to simply block out the endless crying, sobbing and keening.

My wife was trying to get some greatly needed sleep. I walked bleary eyed up the corridor and down the corridor, counting my paces and ignoring the racket in my left ear. Why wouldn’t he shut up? He was fed, he was clean, he was warm, he was loved…

At those surreal moments at 3am, as the rest of Canberra slept, I sometimes wondered privately to myself, “Did I really love my son?” Well of course I did, didn’t I? Society told me that I had to love my son. But how could I love this noisy, wriggly creature that failed to respond to my care? My wife seemed to be bonded to this small mammal. She fed him from her breasts and at those moments he quietened, relaxed and slept. I had no breasts and thus could not provide him with the thing he so desired; sustenance and relief from the nagging pain that gripped his belly. Suckling seemed to provide some momentary break for the little fellow.

My son had received a high-dose of antibiotics through his umbilical cord prior to his birth and it is quite likely that this significantly affected his gut flora, making digestion painful. But knowing this did not necessarily make bonding with my noisy son any easier. In those early months I had trouble believing that I really did love my son. This was a terrible feeling for a man who felt that bonding would be natural and automatic.

Sadly, my experience as a new dad is not unique. Several men who wrote for my book, ‘Men at Birth’, expressed similar sentiments that they had difficulty bonding with their baby. In most cases, the bonding difficulty appeared to arise owing to some medical intervention ” in my case the prescribing of preventative antibiotics to my partner for premature breaking of her membranes, while for other men it was seeing the trauma of a caesarean section or an episiotomy. For others it was the shattering of domestic routine and harmony.

Bonding is a complex psychological and physiological process and there are many pitfalls that may delay bonding with your child. Scientists are only now starting to identify some of the elements that assist parents to bond. It appears mothers, in general, bond far more quickly than fathers with their baby as childbirth promotes hormonal changes in the mother. The main hormone that achieves this is oxytocin.

Oxytocin ” The Bonding Hormone

Oxytocin is produced in the hypothalamus, which is a small gland about the size of an almond found just above the brain stem. Once released into the blood supply by the pituitary gland it circulates in the body until it finds an ‘oxytocin receptor.’ Oxytocin receptors are found in the mammary glands in the breasts and the uterus in women and also the brains of both women and men. On finding an oxytocin receptor, the oxytocin causes physical and positive emotional changes in the body.

Oxytocin has a significant role in childbirth. During labour oxytocin helps the uterus to contract and encourages opening of the cervix to allow a baby to enter the vagina. Nerves in the vaginal wall provide feedback to the hypothalamus about the baby’s progress. If progress is not as fast as it should be, more oxytocin is released, encouraging stronger contractions from the uterus.
After the birth, oxytocin receptors in the breasts take up the oxytocin released in birth and encourage the milk let down reflex to allow the newborn baby to suckle. Women who have had a caesarean section tend to have greater trouble commencing breast-feeding as oxytocin has not flooded her body. When a baby suckles, oxytocin is released which further helps the let down of milk and thus manual nipple stimulation can help commence milk production. New mothers will also notice that the suckling can also cause mildly painful contractions as the oxytocin encourages the uterus to return to its pre-pregnant size.

Some of the bonding effects of oxytocin are quite stunning. The mother’s first glance at the baby that causes the intensity of labour to immediately fade and a flood of love for the baby to suffuse through out the woman’s mind and body is caused by oxytocin. This is why women who have planned caesarean sections without labour often report more difficulty in bonding with their baby than women who have had natural births. The oxytocin that is so much part of labour is absent. Anecdotally, midwives have known this for a long time, but it was only when researchers, such as Dr Dianne Witt, from Binghampton University in the USA, started blocking the release of oxytocin at birth in animals and discovered that the mothers subsequently rejected their offspring, that it become apparent that natural labouring and the benefits for mother-infant bonding had a scientific explanation.

An interesting story reported in Nature in 2005 found that when oxytocin was given to human subjects, they were more willing to trust each other than those without the oxytocin. This provided further evidence that oxytocin is an important part in family bonding.
Hormones and men ” we can bond too!

Men too make use of oxytocin. Oxytocin is released at orgasm, causing the seminal vesicles to ejaculate the sperm from the penis. That feeling of warmth, contentment (and often the keenness to roll over and go to sleep) is from the release of both oxytocin and endorphins (strictly speaking ‘endogenous opioids’). Both of which make the man feel loving, warm, contented and relaxed. Oxytocin is not released just at ejaculation. Oxytocin is also produced during cuddling, kissing and any body contact. This is why a hug can feel good ” oxytocin is released. Humans are pretty simple creatures ” we like to do things that make us feel good and avoid things that don’t. If we repeat the things that make us feel good then we feel kindly towards what makes us feel good.

Take Your Shirt Off!

This fact shows us a way to help men bond with their newborn child. Take your shirt off and place the naked baby on your chest. Cuddle, relax and enjoy. Look at your baby’s eyes, ears, nose, hair, toes and fingers. Marvel. This little baby contains 50% of your genetic makeup. You are looking at your own reflection. What an amazing thing!

What About Bonding After Caesarean?

I recommend to men who unfortunately have to experience a caesarean section that they insist that they stay with their baby wherever that is, the entire time their partner is being stitched up (few obstetricians allow fathers in the room during suturing). At the very least the man should hold the baby’s hand. Preferably he should cuddle his baby if the baby is not able to stay in skin-to-skin contact with its mother. This helps bond with the baby, during a most stressful time. The baby is likely to be stressed too, as normally it would be put straight on the mother’s chest for a feed immediately after birth (some more advanced hospitals do this following caesarean), and thus any body contact that can be provided will be greatly beneficial.

All this body contact will get the oxytocin flowing and the physiological bonds will be forming. But bonding actually starts much before the birth. Men should attend the ante-natal classes with their partner and become as excited as she is at the changes in her body. Feel her belly and talk to your baby. Get to know the little person before it emerges into the world. When your baby finally arrives, throw yourself into the care of the baby. Sure, men can’t breastfeed, but they can change nappies, bathe the baby and comfort it when it needs comforting.

At times you will feel that it’s damn hard work and oh wouldn’t it be wonderful to hand your baby back. But hang in there. It can be hard work, but remember, a strong and loving bond is forever and it is your baby that may well be providing your care when you are old!

And me? Have I bonded with my son who kept me awake, cried incessantly and I questioned my love for him? There is no higher accolade from a bloke than to say that Jonathan and I are the very, very best of mates, and we love each other unreservedly.

Happy bonding!

Last Updated: February 21, 2015


Editor, With Women (2007), Men at Birth (2006) and Having a Great Birth in Australia (2005)

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