Bonding with your baby takes time and can be nurtured by reading cues from your baby and responding appropriately as you get to know him or her. Clinical psychologist Michelle Nortje provides some advice on how to facilitate the bonding process.
Bonding involves the development of a close, secure attachment between a caregiver and an infant. We use the word “caregiver” to emphasise that bonding does not only take place between a mother and infant – it can indeed take place between the infant and any family member or primary caregiver. Similarly, the word “parent” has been used in this article to remind fathers and mothers that bonding is equally important for both.
- Bonding starts in the womb
By the fourth month of gestation, a foetus’s hearing has already developed, so infants can already start to hear your voice and those of friends and family from inside the womb. This offers a distinct opportunity to begin bonding with your child even before they are born. You can talk or sing to your infant, allowing the infant to learn about your voice and consistent presence.
- Reading your infant’s communications
Infants tend to use their bodies to express their feelings as they do not yet have words. A flushed skin or startles in the tips of their fingers might suggest something has stressed them out, while a smile and close eye-contact, on the other hand, might mean they are feeling relaxed and connected. Keep in mind that different infants will express themselves in slightly differing ways. The more time you spend with your infant, the more you will notice their subtle signals and communications.
- Follow your infant’s needs
There is a plethora of information on the internet, on cell phone apps and in books and magazines trying to help new parents be the best parents they can be. Family and friends are also often telling new parents what they should or shouldn’t be doing, and offering their advice. However, sometimes all this external information can become confusing and overwhelming. Very often your infant can actually be the best guide! Even three-day-old infants have an amazing capacity to communicate their needs to you. Learning to tune in to what your infant is telling you makes your relationship stronger and more connected. Psychological interventions such as the Newborn Behavioural Observations (NBO) system, developed by T. Berry Brazelton, was created to help show new parents the capacities of their newborn from birth until three months old. For example, some infants may be more sensitive to touch than others. Being able to notice when your infant has had enough stimulation will help to prevent them from becoming dysregulated and unsettled.
As adults, when we feel stressed, a hug can help to make us feel more safe and calm. For an infant, holding similarly refers to both the physical and emotional containment of your infant’s emotional states. An infant feels safe and can regulate their feelings when they know there is a consistent and present adult ready to help them. Holding an infant close to your own body helps to strengthen your relationship with them and even helps infants to grow healthily. The Kangaroo Care concept emphasises that close skin-on-skin contact between a parent and their newborn helps to stimulate both attachment and healthy development. Touch is a powerful way to connect, and changing nappies and bathing infants are also examples of ways to use ordinary day-to-day activities to connect and not to just get a chore done!
- Eye contact
Eye contact is a well-researched way of connecting and bonding. However, some parents may not even know that their infant can see as soon as they are born. Infants are social creatures and are able to make eye contact from the very start. They are also able to close their eyes or turn away when that particular form of stimulation becomes too intense for them to manage. In this way, infants can regulate their own social experiences, and also have the capacity for self-regulation. This may be helpful for new parents to know: when your infant doesn’t make eye contact it might also be that they are overstimulated and need a bit of a break, and not that they do not want to look at you.
Feeding, whether bottle or breastfeeding, is a wonderful opportunity for parents to connect and bond with their child. Feeding involves all the senses and can provide an infant with nourishment, physical contact, a chance to explore tastes and textures, and a space to play! There is a misconception that breastfeeding is the only way to bond with your infant. If the feeding is done with focused and loving attention, the kind of feeding is not as important compared to the strength of the attachment formed.
- Talking and singing to your infant
As mentioned earlier, infants start to hear from inside the womb. The consistency of hearing the same sounds, voices and songs from the transition from pre-birth to birth offers a powerful opportunity to maintain and strengthen the bond with your infant. In the same way, infants learn to understand your verbal communications too!
- Your infant is a unique little human
For some parents who have already had one child, there may be an expectation of what it will be like with the second or third child. However, each infant is unique, and so their behaviours and ways of communicating will also be particular to them. Take your time to notice the special differences and similarities between your children, without creating unfair expectations or competition. The bonding process and kind of relationship you have with each of your children will be unique and special.
- Getting support when bonding is difficult
Bonding can be made more difficult after a traumatic birth experience, limited family support, and the tearfulness, lack of sleep or low mood resulting from the ‘baby blues’ or postnatal depression (PND). When these stressors become overwhelming for a new parent, forming a bond with your infant can be more difficult. Remember there are resources that can assist you! Parent-infant psychotherapy (PIP), for example, is an effective short-term psychological intervention that can reduce symptoms of postnatal depression and facilitate the bonding process between parent and child.
- Bonding is a process
Some parents bond immediately to their infant, while for other parents this can be more gradual. Be patient! Getting to know someone new and learning about them takes time. A relationship with your infant is no different. Take time to build a strong relationship with each experience you share together. It is the repeated experience of feeling loved, held and seen that helps develop a secure attachment between a parent and child.
For more information and referrals to trained professionals regarding Parent-Infant Psychotherapy (PIP) and the Newborn Behavioural Observation (NBO) contact The Ububele Educational and Psychotherapy Trust, a non-profit organisation based in Kew, Johannesburg, at 011 786 5085.
For more information about the NBO and the Kangaroo skin-to-skin approach, the following websites offer valuable information: