A word that has rocked many moms’ worlds in many ways. Some because it was all they imagined and more; others because it was not as instant and magical as they’d heard others say or seen on social media and in movies.
I can tell you as a 3-star general, AKA mom of 3, that bonding has never been magically instant for me, even though I love my children immensely and would do anything for them. Heck! I carried them in my body for nine whole months and went through the most excruciating processes to birth and nurture them.
It’s like falling in love with any other person or thing; sometimes it’s love at first sight; other times, it’s a process or transition into something amazing, and we need a minute. We would all love the instant and magical, but there is no switch to flip that brings this experience on, and it does not always happen instantly. It can take some time for a mother and her baby to emotionally cozy up with each other.
Let’s dig a little deeper.
Mother-infant bonding is the process by which a mother and her baby develop a close emotional connection. It forms a vital part of early child development, and it has been linked to a number of positive outcomes for both mothers and babies. For the mother, bonding helps to reduce stress and anxiety, and it can also boost her self-esteem as a mom. For the baby, bonding helps to regulate their emotions and behaviour, and it can also promote their cognitive development. There are several factors that affect bonding with one’s baby.
At the heart of the mother-infant bond lies biology, and hormones are at the center of it. Our body produces hormones, which are chemical substances that regulate how our bodies function (physiology), our moods, and our behavior. The moment a baby is born, a mother’s body is flooded with hormones that promote bonding. Oxytocin, prolactin, and vasopressin are all released, and they help to create a strong emotional connection between mother and child. Oxytocin, often referred to as the “love hormone” or “bonding hormone,” is a key player in this intricate process. It surges during labor and breastfeeding, helping to foster feelings of trust, emotional attachment, and maternal instincts. It is, however, crucial to recognize that while oxytocin is undoubtedly influential, an immediate emotional connection isn’t guaranteed. There are several other factors that could impact bonding, such as the mother’s physical and emotional state, past experiences (trauma), and the health of the baby.
There are a number of reasons why a mother might not bond with her baby immediately. These include:
Perinatal Moods and Anxiety Disorders: PMADs are a spectrum of mental health conditions that can affect a mother’s ability to bond with her baby.
Perinatal: The entire time frame from pregnancy through two years postpartum
Mood: Depression, Bipolar 1, Bipolar 2, Psychosis
Anxiety: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Panic Disorder
Disorder: affects everyday living and gets in the way of daily functioning
Source: Ingram Screening Business Model
Difficult or unexpected birth experience: A difficult birth experience, such as a traumatic or prolonged labor, can also make it difficult for a mother to bond with her baby.
Baby’s Health: When the baby requires medical attention due to premature birth, ill health, or an extended stay in the NICU, the separation act can delay bonding.
Adoption: Adoptive mothers may also experience some difficulty bonding with their babies, as they may not have the same physical connection that biological mothers have.
Expectations and Pressure: The societal spotlight on instant maternal love can make a mom feel alone and odd, creating stress that overshadows the bonding process itself.
Fatigue and Stress: Extreme fatigue and high stress levels hinder an immediate emotional connection. I remember feeling like I had been hit by a truck after birthing my first child. It never occurred to me the gravity of what my body and mind had just experienced until my doctor explained. That helped me give myself grace from all the expectations.
So what do you do when bonding doesn’t happen immediately?
It’s estimated that up to 1 in 5 mothers experience some difficulty bonding with their baby. If you are a mother who is struggling to bond with your baby, I can categorically tell you that you are not alone because I was in the 1-in-5 group. There are many resources available to help, and you will be able to overcome this challenge.
Here are some tips that may help you bond with your baby:
Be patient with yourself and your baby. It can take time to develop a strong bond.
Focus on the positive interactions you have with your baby. Even small things, like holding them or making eye contact, can help strengthen your bond.
Talk to your baby or read to them. Even though they can’t understand you yet, talking to them can help them feel connected to you.
Recall how much you love your baby and all you’re doing for the baby’s well-being. That counts for a lot.
Skin-to-skin contact: The much-talked-about golden hour—the first hour after birth—is when oxytocin peaks and is at its highest. Holding your baby skin-to-skin at this time is one of the best ways to promote bonding. Beyond this time, it is still valuable to practice skin-to-skin contact, as it helps regulate the baby’s heart rate and breathing and releases oxytocin in the mother’s brain.
Breastfeeding is another natural way to promote bonding. It allows the mother to feel close to her baby, and it also provides the baby with important nutrients. If you’re struggling with breastfeeding in any way, you can seek a lactation consultant, and remember, a fed baby is best.
Get help if you are concerned about your struggles to bond with your baby. Don’t be afraid to seek help from a therapist, counselor, or support group. PSI offers a ton of support groups that are free to attend each week.
Another person to whom a mom may feel very close to and want to be connected to at this time is her spouse. The role of spousal support in this period cannot be overemphasized.
Emotional support: Offering a listening ear, empathetic understanding, and validation of the mother’s feelings can be incredibly comforting.
Domestic involvement: Getting very hands-on with chores, decisions, care, etc. that are required around the home can be very beneficial to the mom and help reduce the physical and mental load, which in turn improves her chances of settling in with the baby.
Encouragement: Encourage the mother to seek professional help when necessary, and assure her that seeking assistance is a sign of strength, not weakness.
Participate in bonding activities: Encourage the mother to engage in bonding activities with the baby and actively participate in them together.
Bonding with mom and physical connection can be very helpful to both parents.
Remember, you are not alone. Many mothers struggle to bond with their babies at first. With time and support, you will be able to develop a strong and loving bond with your child.
Mother-Infant Bonding: It’s Not Always Instant
By Ayo Ayeni – Founder, Haven Advocacy
Author Bio: Ayo is a business and family life strategist, coach, and consultant with a practice that supports women through by far one of the biggest life transitions – Motherhood. She does this through Haven Advocacy Company, headquartered in Lagos, Nigeria, which renders much-needed, multi-layered dynamic support across Perinatal Mental Health; Family Life; Child Protection; Parenting; and RETAIN Parental Leave Coaching.
Ayo seeks to build a Haven for women to make motherhood work at home and at work. She brings the concept of Human-Centered Design to life in corporate policies and cultures in ways that serve both the organizations and the humans there. Her work is based on over 15 years of experience cutting across the Medical, Public, Aviation, and Media sectors as well as her deep knowledge and understanding of the holistic and dynamic nature of support that women need at home and work.
Ayo is professionally trained by Postpartum Support International and the Center for Parental Leave Leadership.