Bonding with your newborn
Why it can take time, and tips to support you
12 September 2023
Being a new parent can feel overwhelming – a new life to nurture, a new schedule (or lack of!) to work to and new skills to develop, all while navigating changing relationships and a lack of sleep. When you add in all the ‘advice’ that’s out there, from books to podcasts and not to mention well-meaning friends and relatives, you can see why some new parents might worry they’re not doing things ‘right’. Bonding with your baby is just one example of this and it's easy to worry if things don’t go to plan. The good news is that most parents find that with time and a few gentle tips, a close bond happens without trying too much.
Ternity Group’s Nourish Baby Health Writer, Jane Barry gives us some suggestions to help bond with your baby and where to turn if you need a bit of extra help.
Why bonding is important
In a nutshell, bonding is nature’s way of ensuring a baby’s survival. You might also hear it called emotional connection or attachment and it refers to a baby building a close relationship with the people who are most likely to protect them from harm and help ensure they grow towards independence. Bonding supports babies to grow physically and emotionally and helps to lay the foundation for a child’s development and wellbeing throughout their childhood.
Bonding isn’t always instant
We’ve all seen TV shows and movies showing parents who instantly fall in love with their new bundle of joy the minute they arrive, and some parents do describe this immediate rush of love. For some women the connection starts before birth, during pregnancy when their baby is growing. But it’s also true that many parents don’t feel very much at all when their baby is first born, other than a sense of relief (and exhaustion!) that the labour and birth are over.
It's common for parents to feel a sense of anxiety if they don’t feel a strong sense of attachment in the early days and weeks, and even feel that they are somehow inadequate or there’s something wrong with them. But it can take time to fall in love with our babies and there’s no perfect window of time when bonding needs to happen. It’s often not helpful if we try too hard and analyse too much. Sometimes it’s better to turn down the volume on the thinking part of our brain and turn up the feeling part. We’re hardwired to build a close connection with our babies but sometimes (and for all sorts of reasons) it doesn’t happen as quickly as we’d like it to.
Why bonding can take time
It can be hard to pinpoint exactly why bonding doesn’t happen as quickly for some as it does for others, but common reasons include:
- the pregnancy being unplanned and/or the baby not being the preferred gender
- a challenging pregnancy, labour or birth
- the baby being born prematurely and needing special care (especially if the baby and mother are separated during this time)
- breastfeeding challenges
- difficulties with emotional connection between ourselves and our own parents
- other challenges such as mental health, housing, employment, or financial stress
- demands on our time meaning there's not enough time to enjoy the baby
- the baby being particularly unsettled, crying a lot or not responding easily to soothing measures.
Ten tips to help bond with your baby
So what can we do to help build the bond between us and our baby? Here are our top 10 tips:
1. Avoid overthinking what you ‘should’, ‘would’ or ‘could’ be feeling. You’re an individual, just like your baby, and this means you’ll love and connect in your own time and in your own special way.
2. Spend time just sitting and holding your baby. Early parenting is a busy time and it’s easy to get caught up in the ‘tasks’ of caregiving – feeding, changing, settling, repeat! Love and connection often happen in the times when we do less ‘for’ and more ‘with’ our babies, so try to find windows of time just to be still and in their company.
3. Take your time. Try not to rush whatever it is you’re doing, whether it’s changing their nappy or settling them. Make a conscious effort to stop, pause and absorb what your hands are doing.
4. Keep your baby close during their sleep times. The safest place for babies to sleep is in their own safe cot in their parent’s room for the first 6–12 months of life and having them close when you’re sleeping will also help to build a physical and emotional connection.
5. Respond to your baby when they’re crying. This will help them to feel you’re close and willing to help regulate their emotions. Small babies can have big feelings and it’s up to the adults around them to help them feel safe.
6. Read books to your little one. Even from birth, babies love to be read to and it’s a great thing to include in settling routines. Choose picture books with bright colours and simple stories. You’ll find your baby will develop a preference for the same (or a couple of) books.
7. Sing songs to your baby and look for their responses. The sound, pitch and rhythm of your voice will help them to soothe (they don’t care if you’re not a great singer!).
8. Be open to the cues or signals your baby is giving you – they’ll help you to fall in love with them. Often a baby’s smell, eye contact, small cooing noises and uncontrolled movements are their way of reaching out and seeking connection.
9. Find ways to help your baby feel safe, both physically and emotionally. Most young babies like to be wrapped and held closely and when they’re unsettled, like the sensation of being rocked and swayed gently.
10. Give yourself permission to love your baby in your own unique way. Remember love isn’t the same for all of us.
Bonding comes in its own time so trust yourself and your baby to help you. What’s important is that you’re caring well for your baby and they’re thriving.
How about non-birthing parents?
Non-birthing parents can struggle to feel as if they’re really contributing to their baby’s care in the very early days, especially if their baby is breastfeeding. It’s important to remember that the times between feeds are when non-birthing parents can really make a difference, as well as being supportive to their partner. Babies learn social skills such as smiling, eye contact and engaging at around six weeks of age and it’s often then that non-birthing parents really start to feel their baby is getting to know them and starts responding to their presence.
A bit of extra support
As a parent it’s important to listen to your instincts and take note of any gut feelings. If you’re worried that you’re not bonding with your baby, remember you’re not alone. You can:
- Speak to your GP, maternity care provider, or child health nurse. Any of these health professionals will be able to refer you to support services who specialise in building emotional connection.
- Speak to your partner about how you feel. They know you and may be able to offer you some helpful support.
- Be open to advice on strategies which can help build emotional connection. Early intervention is always valuable (even if, at first, it may not seem to be particularly relevant).
Most importantly, be kind to yourself. Becoming a parent is a life-changing experience and not everything will go as expected. Give yourself time to adjust and remember that help is available if you need it. Eligible Teachers Health members can also access the New Families Program.
If you’re concerned about yourself or someone you know, you can:
- Speak to your GP or health professional
- Contact Pregnancy, Birth & Baby on 1800 882 436 – free call 7 days a week to speak to a specialised health professional or visit pregnancybirthbaby.org.au for more info
- Contact Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Australia (PANDA) on 1300 726 306 (Monday – Friday 9am – 7.30pm) or visit panda.org.au for more information
- Speak to trusted family members or friends
- If you need help now call Lifeline on 13 11 14
- If your life is in danger call 000
Ternity Group supports Teachers Health members through the New Families Program.
Nourish Baby Health Writer Jane Barry has qualifications in general, paediatric, immunisation, midwifery and child health nursing. She holds a Bachelor Degree in Applied Science (Nursing) and has almost 35 years specialist experience in child health nursing.