Bonding With Your Baby

It often starts before birth but may take longer than you think.


Pregnant women often find themselves dreamily obsessing about their babies or acting uncharacteristically absent-minded. If you're spending a lot of time in such a distracted state, you may actually be doing something very important: bonding with your unborn baby. This detachment from worldly concerns is a lot like falling in love, and it's what leads to the enduring emotional tie between parent and child.

But the common—and misguided—expectation that you must bond instantly and deeply with your baby before or right after he's born is unrealistic and can lead to anxiety if it doesn't happen this way. As with breastfeeding — another "natural" process — a little knowledge can help make things go more smoothly and put you at ease. So will knowing that the bonding "window of opportunity" remains open longer than you might think.

Until as recently as the 1970s, newborns were routinely whisked away from their mothers for medical care. Since then, researchers have learned that for about 40 minutes after birth, a newborn is as alert as he will be for days and will look directly at his mother's and father's faces and respond to their voices, providing an ideal time for bonding.

Today, experts agree that whenever possible, a baby should be put in his mother's arms immediately after birth.

Bonding: A Natural Process Given the right conditions, bonding — or attachment — occurs naturally. "It will happen if the baby and mother are just left alone," says pediatrician William Sears, M.D., author of The Attachment Parenting Book (Little, Brown, 2001). "Bonding is not something you have to plan for," he adds. "Like milk, it will flow." But Sears also says that a mother should not be worried if it doesn't happen immediately. "Bonding is not instant glue," he says.

"Attachment is a process that occurs over the first year of life as the relationship develops," explains Alison Steier, Ph.D., a specialist in infant mental health at Southwest Human Development in Phoenix. "It is the ongoing exchange between parent and child that creates the bond."

To promote the process, Sears advocates not only allowing the baby to remain with his mother immediately after birth (ask the nurses to delay the eye drops and other procedures as long as possible) but also throughout the hospital stay (request "rooming in"). If a mother has had a Cesarean section or a particularly difficult delivery and is unable to hold her baby, Sears says, the father should hold the child and talk to him while looking directly into his eyes. (Later, fathers can also bond while bottle-feeding.)

Creating the ties that bind It helps to realize that adoptive parents, who often are not present at their child's birth, are capable of bonding as closely as birth parents. This was true for Marla Malkin, 37, a public-relations executive in Southern California. "I wasn't in the delivery room when my daughter was born," she says. "But my husband and I spent five days in a hotel room with her after she was born [because of the state's waiting period]. We just put away the rest of the world, and we bonded with her immediately."

It also helps to know that our physiology aids the process. "Every time you hold, nurse or otherwise take care of your baby," Sears explains, "you get a burst of oxytocin, which has been called the 'hormone of love.'" Here are some other ways to promote bonding:

-Talk and read to your baby.

-Look into his eyes when you feed, bathe and dress him.

-Savor the time with your baby. Let the world fade away; it will be there when you're ready to re-emerge.