I’ve received quite a few emails lately from parents wondering about bonding. Readers want to know: is bonding a specific thing, moment or process? If you don’t do it immediately after birth, do you lose your chance? Does everybody bond or only women who breastfeed? What if you have a C-section? What if you don’t feel it when it happens? Can you fake it? I’ve had patients ask, “When do we do bonding?” as if it’s an appointment we schedule. People think bonding is like magic: You grab when the bonding fairy passes over you and if you’re not there when she visits, you’re outta luck.
So, here’s my take on bonding: Bottom line—It doesn’t take much effort. It’s fairly simple, straightforward, occurs naturally and is almost guaranteed to happen to every parent and every baby, every time.
What exactly is “bonding?” The American Academy of Pediatrics says “The first exchanges of eye contact, sounds, and touches between the two of you are all part of a process called bonding, which helps lay the foundation for your relationship as parent and child.” Note the words "part of" and "process." These underline that bonding isn’t just one thing, one moment or one set of behaviors that everyone has to duplicate in order to do it right. It’s a bunch of moments, over time that let your baby know you are hers. It’s the process of knowing, understanding and accepting your newborn. It’s “falling in love” with your baby.
Bonding is like a magnet that pulls people together. It’s a strong, lovely, overwhelming attachment and the sooner you experience it the better but there’s no penalty if it doesn’t happen instantly. Let’s take a little pressure off. What if you don’t get to hold your baby immediately after birth? What if he has to spend time in a NICU or you’re adopting your baby? Don’t worry, bonding happens anyway. Mother Nature ain’t no dummy. She knows survival of the species depends on it and she’s pretty liberal and generous about letting it happen in it’s own time and fashion.
Reader Teresa’s daughter had trouble breathing immediately after birth. She was rushed to the NICU and Teresa couldn’t follow her for several hours. Dan, Teresa’s husband, stayed by their baby’s side while she was resuscitated, evaluated and recovered. Dan said, “she was so small and vulnerable, I immediately felt like I wanted to protect her. I knew I’d feel that way the rest of my life.” Several hours later, Teresa was finally able to hold her daughter. “I felt this whoosh of emotions, like a wave crashing over me. I cried all over her blanket. I was relieved she was OK but mostly, I just loved her. Oh my god, I’ve never loved anyone that strongly before.”
When readers Bonnie and Marshall first met their little girl, adopted from overseas and already nine-months-old, they felt awkward. “There was no physical preparation like with pregnancy. We did the paperwork, created her nursery and traveled around the world. Then they stuck a baby in our arms and said, ‘There you go.’ We were in shock, like ‘now what?’ But then, she cried and we were floored. All of a sudden, we were parents, she was ours and we’d do anything in the world to make her stop crying. We’d never seen this little person before and yet, the bond was immediate.”
It’s a process, a moment, a commitment. It’s not one “thing” or a specific “second” you might miss. We’re not like ducks that imprint on whatever they see first when they hatch. Babies are born knowing how to love. They sense when someone is attached and committed to them. And babies fall in love with us just as hard as we do with them.
Why do some women feel like they don’t bond with their babies? Fatigue, depression, trauma, mental illness, lack of confidence or support, extreme immaturity or a baby born with incomprehensible disabilities. I’ve known mothers who’ve experienced multiple miscarriages or stillbirths who just couldn’t invest their heart in another child until they were sure they’d stick around and live. I’ve known mothers who were addicted to drugs or alcohol and knew they wouldn’t be raising this child, so why bother. And yet, they didn’t fool me. They loved their babies as much as I love my own. They were just better at hiding the pain or protecting themselves from feeling it. Bonds happen.
For all of you worrying you’ll miss your bonding moment, relax. It’s almost guaranteed and there’s no time limit on it. Don’t feel bad if that wave doesn’t crash at first site. Maybe your bond is a whisper, bubble, squeak or whoosh instead of a wave. Don’t worry. That baby’s yours. You’re hers. You’re made for each other.