Bonding is the intense attachment that develops between parents and their baby. It makes parents want to shower their baby with love and affection and to protect and nourish their little one. Bonding gets parents up in the middle of the night to feed their hungry baby and makes them attentive to the baby’s wide range of cries.
Scientists are still learning a lot about bonding. They know that the strong ties between parents and their child provide the baby’s first model for intimate relationships and foster a sense of security and positive self-esteem. And parents’ responsiveness to an infant’s signals can affect the child’s social and cognitive development.
Why Is Bonding Important?
Bonding is essential for a baby. Studies of newborn monkeys who were given mannequin mothers at birth showed that, even when the mannequins were made of soft material and provided formula to the baby monkeys, the babies were better socialized when they had live mothers to interact with. The baby monkeys with mannequin mothers were more likely to suffer from despair, as well as failure to thrive. Scientists suspect that lack of bonding in human babies can cause similar problems.
Most infants are ready to bond immediately. Parents, on the other hand, may have a mixture of feelings about it. Some parents feel an intense attachment within the first minutes or days after their baby’s birth. For others — especially if the baby is adopted or has been placed in intensive care — it may take a bit longer.
But bonding is a process, not something that takes place within minutes and not something that has to be limited to happening within a certain time period after birth. For many parents, bonding is a byproduct of everyday caregiving. You may not even know it’s happening until you observe your baby’s first smile and suddenly realize that you’re filled with love and joy.
The Ways Babies Bond
When you’re a new parent, it often takes a while to understand your newborn’s true capabilities and all the ways you can interact:
- Touch becomes an early language as babies respond to skin-to-skin contact. It’s soothing for both you and your baby while promoting your baby’s healthy growth and development.
- Eye-to-eye contact provides meaningful communication at close range.
- Babies can follow moving objects with their eyes.
- Your baby tries — early on — to imitate your facial expressions and gestures.
- Babies prefer human voices and enjoy vocalizing in their first efforts at communication. Babies often enjoy just listening to your conversations, as well as your descriptions of their activities and environments.
Making an Attachment
Bonding with your baby is probably one of the most pleasurable aspects of infant care. You can begin by cradling your baby and gently stroking him or her in different patterns. If you and your partner both hold and touch your infant frequently, your little one will soon come to know the difference between your touches. Each of you should also take the opportunity to be “skin to skin” with your newborn by holding him or her against your own skin when feeding or cradling.
Babies, especially premature babies and those with medical problems, may respond to infant massage. Because babies aren’t as strong as adults, you’ll need to massage your baby gently. Before trying out infant massage, be sure to educate yourself on proper techniques by checking out the many books, videos, and websites on the subject. You can also contact your local hospital to find out if there are classes in infant massage in your area.
Bonding also often occurs naturally almost immediately for a breastfeeding or bottle-feeding mother. Infants respond to the smell and touch of their mothers, as well as the responsiveness of the parents to their needs. In an uncomplicated birth, caregivers try to take advantage of the infant’s alert period immediately after birth and encourage feeding and holding of the baby. However, this isn’t always possible and, though ideal, immediate contact isn’t necessary for the future bonding of the child and parent.
Adoptive parents may be concerned about bonding with their baby. Although it might happen sooner for some than others, adopted babies and their parents have the opportunity to bond just as well as biological parents and their children.