After nine months of pregnancy, many parents are more than elated to welcome the new addition to their family.
We see the movies, and the photos, and we hear the stories from our friends about that immediate love.
“I never knew how much I could love someone until I met my baby”.
It’s safe to say we’ve all heard that phrase from at least one person. And the moment our baby comes earth side, we expect to feel that same flood of love.
Some parents do experience that immediate bond. However, a new survey conducted by the National Childbirth Trust found that one third of new mothers struggle to bond with their babies.
And of those mothers, at least 10% are embarrassed to discuss this challenge with their care providers.
Is it normal to struggle with bonding?
Why wouldn’t a parent feel an immediate bond?
Do bonding struggles have lasting effects?
Is it possible that our birth and postnatal practices, and our culture, interfere with bonding?
In short, taking some time to feel a close bond can be part of the normal adjustment to parenthood. Our culture doesn’t seem to help. But a secure parent-baby bond is essential to proper child development.
Why Might Some Mothers Struggle To Bond With Their Babies?
The parent-child bond can seem simple on one hand, but complex on the other. When we look at biology, there’s a natural progression from pregnancy, through childbirth and into the postnatal period.
Oxytocin triggers uterine contractions. Oxytocin is often referred to as the ‘love’ and bonding hormone. During labour and birth, oxytocin levels are high. The flow of oxytocin helps the progress of labour and causes feelings of euphoria, a natural coping mechanism for labour pains.
Right before baby is born, the birthing mother has high levels of oxytocin and endorphins. She also experiences a rush of adrenaline. This hormone cocktail makes for an alert mother and baby, who are both ready to begin bonding (before baby drifts off into a pretty solid sleep after about an hour or so post birth).
Modern obstetrical practices have a tendency to interfere with this natural progression from pregnancy to a bonding mother-baby pair. Artificial oxytocin (Pitocin or Syntocinon) is frequently used to trigger or augment (speed up) labour. While this artificial oxytocin can trigger uterine contractions, unlike the body’s own oxytocin, it doesn’t cross the blood brain barrier and therefore has no behavioural effects, such as encouraging bonding. It just doesn’t work the same way or have the same effects of natural oxytocin.
In an animal study in the 1980s, researchers found that ewes that were given epidurals during birth rejected their young.
Of course, we aren’t ewes, and we need to understand that we won’t reject our young if we utilise modern obstetrics. However, the study helps us to understand the potential impact of interfering with a natural hormonal process.
We also know that in cases of adoption and fostering, mother-baby pairs can and do develop excellent and secure bonds.
Birth isn’t the be all and the end all of bonding, but it’s still important to understand the potential impact birth can have on initial bonding.
Can The Postnatal Period Impact Bonding?
Birth can play a large role in bonding. We also know that birth trauma can have an impact on how a mother-baby pair bonds. But what about the time immediately following birth?
Following birth, skin-to-skin, breastfeeding and time spent close together continue to aid the flow of oxytocin. If birth involves complications, if hospital policy requires separation of mother and baby, or if well-meaning relatives spend more time holding baby than the mother does, then it’s possible for the mother-baby pair to feel the effects of less oxytocin.
The mother and baby are designed to spend nearly all of their time in close proximity, if not actually attached, during the postnatal period. Frequent feeds, skin-to-skin, and sleeping in close proximity help baby to feel secure and can help a mother’s natural bonding instincts, due to the release of oxytocin.
In many western cultures, parents are encouraged not to spoil an infant, to schedule feeds, and to encourage independence early on. Unfortunately, these practices can interfere with natural bonding.
We know that breastfeeding leads to the release of oxytocin, and can aid in bonding. However, it isn’t the only way to help establish a secure mother-baby bond.
Read more about bonding without breastfeeding in BellyBelly’s article 7 Ways You Don’t Need Boobs To Bond With Your Baby.
How Do Culture And Lifestyle Affect Mother Baby Bonding?
In some cultures, especially traditional ones, mothers are encouraged to spend 40, 90 or even 100 days at home and resting. Other female relatives and friends are charged with caring for the new mother so she can simply rest, bond and feed baby.
These traditions are fading and, for the most part, have long gone from many western cultures.
What used to be up to six weeks of resting, bonding and little if any separation, has now been reduced, in many cases, to a few days of rest. Mothers often try to get babies into some kind of routine, so they can get back to normal life (and it’s often not their choice). In the US, up to 25% of mothers return to work or school by two weeks post birth! We see endless articles and posts about postnatal workouts, feeding schedules, and how to get baby sleeping through the night as soon as possible.
Rather than spending a few weeks soaking up the snuggles, frequent feeds and massive amounts of flowing oxytocin, many of us fight nature. We work out, and get baby into a manageable routine so we can return to work or to our regular motherly duties.
“It takes a village to raise a child” is still true – possibly truer than ever, but many of us don’t have the village we so desperately need.
We used to watch our mother, aunts, cousins or other village members care for newborns. Now, few mothers have close or familiar parenting role models. This can make it challenging for new mothers. It’s difficult to understand what is normal, what isn’t, and how to navigate early parenthood.
What Can We Do To Encourage Bonding?
As with all relationships, the mother-child bond requires an investment. Even if it was love at first sight with your partner, you probably had to spend time in building your relationship. The mother-baby bond is no different. You need to invest in building a secure attachment.
Making educated choices about birth can be the first step in preparing to bond with your baby. Even if you need to, or choose to, utilise modern obstetrics, knowing the impact it might have on your hormones can help you make conscious postnatal choices to encourage bonding.
Some ways to encourage bonding:
- Avoid or limit mother-baby separation during the early days and weeks
- Rest for an extended period after the birth
- Breastfeed upon request when possible
- Practise skin-to-skin often, regardless of feeding methods
- Utilise babywearing
- Bathe with baby
- Practise safe co-sleeping
- Participate in mother-to-mother support groups
- Use nurturing touches (infant massage, gentle washing during bath, etc)
What If I’m Struggling To Bond?
First, it’s important to remember that becoming a mother is a big life change. How we were raised, our life experiences, our pregnancy and birth experience, previous pregnancy or infant loss, postnatal support, postnatal mood disorders and even baby’s temperament can all have an impact on the mother-baby bond.
However, it is extremely important to remember that struggling to bond with your baby does NOT mean you are a bad mother. Neither does it mean you don’t love your baby.
It simply means you’re human, and you’re struggling with something that many mothers – up to one third – struggle with.
If you’re concerned about how you’re bonding with your baby, it’s important to reach out to your healthcare provider. Sometimes, struggling to bond can be a symptom of a postnatal mood disorder (common in 10-20% of new mothers). Even if there’s no underlying trouble, you can chat with a professional about it. Struggling to bond is more common than you might think. You can also learn some tips to help with bonding. This will help get you and your baby off to an excellent start.