When bonding doesn't work


“Just as there is no warning for childbirth, there is no preparation for the sight of a first child. I studied his face, fingers, the folds in his boneless little legs, the whorls of his ears, the tiny nipples on his chest. I held my breath as he sighed, laughed when he yawned, wondered at his grasp on my thumb. I could not get my fill of looking.

“There should be a song for women to sing at this moment, or a prayer to recite. But perhaps there is none because there are no words strong enough to name that moment. Like every mother since the first mother, I was overcome and bereft, exalted and ravaged. I had crossed over from girlhood. I beheld myself as an infant in my mother’s arms, and caught a glimpse of my own death. I wept without knowing whether I rejoiced or mourned. My mothers and their mothers were with me as I held my baby.

“ ‘Bar-Shalem,’ I whispered. He took my breast and fed in his sleep.”

- The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant

This description of a mother’s first moments with her newborn paints a powerful picture of mother-baby bonding. The mother is overwhelmed by love for and fascination with her newborn child; you can feel her hormone-filled euphoria and intense emotion.

They settle into a quiet post-partum moment of contentment, and breastfeeding seems to cement that incredible bond.

Bonding is a powerful attachment to and love for your baby. It is usually coupled with a sense of responsibility for this new life entrusted to you which, experts believe, is nature’s way of ensuring the survival of these helpless little beings. As parents, our instincts drive us to feed, shelter and protect them at all costs.

It is not only the baby’s physical safety that is assured by a close parental bond. Psychologists believe that early relationship between the baby and his parents is very significant, forming the basis for the child’s other intimate relationships.

For many women, bonding starts in pregnancy. Perhaps you felt the first stirrings of love when you saw the tiny heartbeat fluttering on the scan, or when he first moved inside you.

For some, the first glimpse of the newborn and it’s love at first sight.

When bonding takes longer

For others, the process takes longer. As Jane* puts it: “They handed me my baby and I looked at him for the first time and it was so weird – he was a little stranger.”

Jane clearly isn’t feeling the instant love that we often think of as the bonding moment, but that doesn’t mean she is destined to be estranged from her child.

Bonding is a process

While the early minutes, days and weeks are an important time, bonding is a process, not a moment. “There is no rush,” says Deborah Jackson in Baby Wisdom. “Babies do not fail to bond with mothers or fathers simply because the mothers or fathers doubt their own feelings. The solution is to keep connecting with the baby in positive, physical ways and let the emotions follow. Skin-to-skin contact is the surest way to elicit strong maternal and paternal reactions.”

Debbie Levin of the Postnatal Depression Support Association concurs, “Very often, mothers expect to feel completely bonded straight away. Quite often that doesn’t happen; it can take a while. However, if a mother does not feel attached or bonded after a fair adjustment period, say six weeks, she should get help.”

What helps bonding...

Certain physical and emotional conditions contribute to bonding. Early contact is strongly recommended. Immediately post-birth, you are on a hormone high. Oxytocin, the “love” hormone, and prolactin, sometimes called the mothering hormone, flood your body. Adrenalin and endorphins are released. Chemically, you and your newborn are in the perfect state for mutual attachment.

In modern hospitals babies are usually given to their mothers as soon as possible. Ideally, mother and baby are in close skin-to-skin contact immediately after the birth, the mother touching and stroking her newborn, the baby inhaling his mother’s scent, hearing her heartbeat and instinctively rooting for the breast. Touch is a language that babies understand. Stroking, nuzzling, massaging, cuddling, napping together, bathing together – these are the ways you and your partner can communicate your love for your child and develop that special bond.

Various studies have shown that both vaginal delivery and breastfeeding may positively influence the mother-baby bond. That’s not to say that you will necessarily struggle to bond if you’ve had a C-section or are bottle-feeding. Childbirth educators recommend that bottle-feeding moms get some of the benefits of breastfeeding by cuddling up skin-to-skin and maintaining eye contact with the feeding baby.

A good support system helps. You and your partner are in this together and his involvement and support will make your transition from couple to loving, bonded family easier.

What hinders bonding?

Not every mother (or father) feels an instant bond with their newborn. It’s a very personal experience that proceeds differently for every mother. Chances are that this bond will develop over the coming days and weeks as you become more confident in caring for your baby and you recover from the physical effects of birth. There are many circumstances that can affect bonding.

Difficult pregnancy

If your pregnancy was difficult, for instance, and you feared the loss of your baby, you might have held back emotionally to protect yourself.

Premature baby

Mothers of very premature babies, or babies who are ill and in Neonatal ICU sometimes experience something similar. If your baby is in an incubator or attached to complex and unfamiliar equipment, it’s not easy to touch and nurture him. Persevere, though, and ask the nurses to help you hold, stroke, soothe and feed him as well as you can under the circumstances.

Delivering your baby

Mothers who are exhausted after a long and difficult delivery, or mothers who have not had the kind of delivery that they had hoped for and anticipated, might find it harder to feel that immediate bond. If your baby is high-maintenance, for instance if he has colic, you might find that it takes a little longer for you to feel really attached.

Feelings of inadequacy

Many new mothers simply feel inadequate to the task of looking after this new little person. Kathy* describes her first days as a mom, “My main emotion was absolute terror. I remember thinking, ‘How can they let us take this tiny baby home?’ I didn’t know how I was going to keep her alive. I didn’t know if I was doing things right, or if she was getting enough to eat. When my husband went back to work I cried every morning. I wished I could go back to work, to do something I was competent at, and let someone who knew what they were doing look after the baby. I had absolutely no faith in my parenting skills and I was so anxious that it was difficult for me to enjoy my baby. We only really bonded after about a month, when my fear settled down a bit. It made a real difference when I got the hang of breastfeeding and I could see she was getting fatter. At least I could stop worrying that I was starving her!”

Claire Marketos of Inspired Parenting adds, “If the mom feels she is unable to meet her expectations of mothering she may feel miserable and disillusioned. Feeling isolated and unsupported can make a mother feel overwhelmed in her new role, especially if this is combined with criticism from family members and her partner about her mothering skills.”

Mental, emotion and physical wellbeing

If the mother is mentally, emotionally or physically unwell, this can impact on her ability to respond to and bond with her baby. There is a correlation between PND and difficulty in bonding, explains Debbie Levin, “When a person is depressed, bonding is often affected. The mother might go into automatic mode, bathing and changing the baby, but not really wanting the baby near her. In the case of very severe depression, bonding can be badly affected and in extreme cases, someone else might have to look after the baby.”

Approximately 10% of women who have just given birth experience postpartum depression. It’s common, but treatable. Get help from your doctor if you suspect you are suffering from PND, and particularly if you have thoughts of harming yourself or your baby.

Having a baby is a deeply profound experience, and mothers with unresolved trauma, such as abuse, or who have suffered a loss, perhaps of a partner or another baby, may find that the birth and the transition to motherhood seems to make these issues resurface. Your own experience of being mothered can also impact on your own feelings about becoming a mother yourself. A psychologist can help you look at these issues and heal the pain of your past.

If you aren’t bonding

Don't force it

Debbie Levin advises moms who are not feeling bonded to try not to blame themselves, and to take the relationship slowly. “Don’t force yourself to be with the baby all the time if it’s not working. Focus on doing something that you do enjoy – if that is bathing the baby, for instance, set aside a little period of time to really enjoy that.”

Reevaluate your expectations of motherhood

“Reevaluate your expectations of motherhood,” suggests Claire Marketos. “The ’perfect mother’ is not what your baby needs. Take a moment to be still and get in touch with your instincts or ’inner voice’ through meditation. Don’t sweat the small stuff.”

Ask and accept help

Ask for and accept help, especially from your partner. If friends and family are happy to take care of some of the daily chores, or cook a meal, or fetch older kids from school, accept gratefully. It will allow you to catch up on sleep and recover from the birth, and give you time to really get to know and love your baby. Snuggle up with him and take a nap. Bath together. Sing to him. Spend 10 minutes marveling at his tiny fingers and toes.

Talk about your issues with those who understand

Talk to friends who have young babies, or join a mom and baby group. It’s reassuring to know that others have similar experiences. “Spend time with people who are warm and nurturing and avoid people who are critical and overbearing, even if they are your own family,” says Claire. “Receiving love and support for yourself makes it easier to give love and support to your children.”

Sleep well and eat well

Meet your own needs for sleep, downtime and nutrition, so that you can be strong, healthy and consciously present for your baby.

Eat well and take a multivitamin if your doctor advises it – now’s not the time to try and diet away that post-baby weight. If you don’t get the nutrients your body needs you won’t be able to cope with the demands of looking after a small baby, and nutritional deficiencies may even adversely affect your bonding.

Mothers who suffer from iron deficiency may be less emotionally involved with their children after birth, according to a 2005 study done by researchers of Pennsylvania State University. Get out into the sunshine for Vitamin D and fresh air.

If you're still struggling

If you feel that you are not forming a positive attachment to your baby, don’t feel guilty; it doesn’t mean you are a bad mother or a bad person. Talk to your doctor. They are accustomed to dealing with new moms in your position. The sooner you get professional help, the sooner you will feel better and the sooner you will be able to really bond with your baby.


Postnatal Depression Support Association www.pndsa.org.za

National helpline: 082 882 0072

Gauteng helpline: 082 429 2279

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