What are bonding and attachment?
Bonding is the experience of connecting with another person. Parent-infant bonding or attachment is the unique connection that mothers and fathers have with their babies. It evolves when a parent provides love, safety, comfort, and food to their baby over a period of time. Bonding and close attachment spark the release of hormones like oxytocin and dopamine, which are also known as the “happy chemicals.” They are responsible for helping parents and infants experience greater closeness with one another.
Many psychologists, including John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, have extensively studied the process of attachment. Ainsworth carried out a famous study called the Strange Situation, during which she studied the attachment styles of infants around 12 months old and their mothers. She observed how the infants responded to the mother when she left the infant alone a the room and then later returned. Ainsworth noted the following attachment styles:
- Securely attached babies used their mothers as a safe base to explore their world. She found that parents of securely attached babies are attuned to their needs and respond when their babies are in distress. When these babies are upset, they are usually easily calmed by their parents.
- Insecure avoidant babies tend to be overly independent when their parents are present and reject the support of their parents while in distress.
- Insecure ambivalent babies tend to show conflicting feelings toward their parents. At times they may be clingy or overly dependent and other times rejecting of their parents.
When parents learn of the different attachment styles, they may become concerned about whether they have a secure attachment with their children. Ainsworth found that the majority of mothers and babies that she studied did have a secure attachment. Furthermore, attachment is a process that evolves over time, so it is never too late to enhance the parent-child bond.
How can I develop a secure attachment with my baby?
It is common for it to take several days, weeks, or months to feel a bond with your baby. At first your baby may feel like a stranger, but over time many parents develop a sense of closeness with their children.
The most effective ways to develop a secure attachment with your baby are for you to respond to your baby’s cues, do your best to soothe them, and manage your own stress. This means taking actions when your baby is hungry, tired, or has a wet diaper. When your baby is fussy or upset, you should do what you can to try to calm them down. The 5 S’s are a popular and effective technique for calming fussy newborns. Of course these techniques will not always work and sometimes your baby may continue to fuss no matter what you do. During these times it’s important to remain calm, avoid beating yourself up, and remember that you are doing your best. By being present for your baby, you are showing them that they can depend on you.
Tips for bonding with your baby
- Take care of yourself
It can be very challenging to develop a relationship with your new baby if you are feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. It is important that you do your best to get adequate rest, nutrition, and some form of exercise. This can be difficult for many new parents and involves planning. When possible, delegate non-essential tasks, like grocery store runs, cleaning, and errands, to other people so you have more time to practice self-care.
- Make time for skin-to-skin
Skin-to-skin contact with your baby offers a range of health and emotional benefits for mothers, fathers, and babies. It causes a release of oxytocin and other “feel good” hormones and can help aid the mother in recovery from childbirth. Good opportunities for skin-to-skin contact include right after giving birth, during breastfeeding, or while just relaxing. It is also an effective way to soothe and calm your baby when they are fussy.
- Limit your use of technology
Technology, whether it be television, your phone, or another electronic device, can serve as a distraction from bonding with your baby. Try to set limits around your use of technology. For example, you can consider only answering emails, texts, phone calls, and scrolling through social media during a specific time of day.
- Schedule time in your day to connect with your baby
It’s easy to get swept up in work or household chores, but no activity is more important than “just being” with your baby. If you’re finding it hard to squeeze in bonding time, consider scheduling it into your day. You can use this time to rock your baby, give them a bath, sing songs, or take a walk outside. Make sure you’re both able to make eye contact and touch and put away all electronics and distractions.
What if I don’t feel connected to my baby?
Difficulty bonding with a new baby is a fairly common experience reported by new parents. There can be many different explanations for this, including the overwhelming responsibility of caring for a newborn, sleep deprivation, and the postpartum blues. The postpartum blues affect more than half of new mothers and involve tearfulness, irritability, and mild sadness. They typically resolve within the first month, but some women go on to develop a perinatal mood and anxiety disorder, which can also affect their attachment experience. If you’re continuing to struggle with bonding after the first month, you may benefit from speaking with a mental health professional, who can assess you for a postpartum mood or anxiety disorder. If you do have a disorder, there are many options available for treatment, including individual therapy, support groups, and medication.
How can I help my partner bond with our child?
Sometimes bonding comes more naturally for one parent than it does for another. If you find that your partner is struggling to bond with your baby, try to be empathic and supportive. They may feel badly about this, so you will want to avoid making them feel worse. If your partner is having a hard time, try:
- Reminding them that bonding and attachment are a process over time and rarely happen right away.
- Pointing out what they are doing well as a parent.
- Offering to take over more household chores or tasks so that they can schedule bonding time.
- Asking about their own self-care routine and if they are getting enough sleep.
- Finding bonding activities to do together as a family
Fathers may also suffer from paternal postpartum depression after birth. If you suspect that your partner’s struggle to bond is due to an underlying mental health condition, you may want to communicate your concerns and encourage them to consider speaking with someone.
Will my other children feel left out if I bond with my baby?
Introducing a newborn into your family can cause your other children to feel a range of emotions. Some children may respond with excitement, while others may feel rejected or angry.
It is very normal if your other children are having negative feelings about your newborn and sharing your attention. Children typically bond through play, so you can help support a connection between your baby and older children by encouraging play between them.
There will be times when you may be overwhelmed with having to meet the needs of your children. During moments like this, imagine yourself as a nurse or doctor triaging patients in the emergency room. Quickly assess which child needs your attention first. If one child is in potential danger, attend to them first. Next attend to the ones that need their basic needs for food, sleep, or bathroom met. All other requests can usually wait. Explain that sometimes one child will get mommy or daddy’s attention first, while the others will have to wait. Acknowledge that this can be very frustrating at times. Depending upon your children’s age and maturity, they may or may not understand this, but you are still modeling healthy communication, patience, and calm.
It is important to remember that just because your children are struggling to connect with each other right now, does not mean that it will last forever. Many older children initially struggle to bond with their siblings, only to develop better relationships as they grow older.
For more information about bonding and attachment, see the following resources: