Pinky McKay says the bonding experience can vary from mum to mum – and even birth to birth.
For some it’s an overwhelming experience of love at first sight. “The moment I met Jack ‘on the outside’ I thought ‘Of course it’s you!’ and fell instantly and totally in love with him,” new mum Melanie says. “It was a total Earth Mother, mother lioness reaction, and one I could never have imagined the intensity of. I was suddenly and absolutely prepared to do anything to protect him, and told him at least every five minutes how much I loved him."
But for many women, the instantaneous bond Melanie felt with her son might sound like a romanticised ideal. They might feel cheated, while others may wonder what women like Melanie are on about. Still others may see her as ridiculously overprotective, or even a little barmy.
Teresa, a mum of two, had starkly different experiences with her babies. She says that as much as she loved her first daughter, the initial connection just wasn’t there.
“I remember walking out of the birthing suite to my room and leaving her behind. A nurse reminded me to take her with me,” she says.
“For the first three months she looked like a weird scared little alien who seemed to be thinking, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’, and I felt I could do little to help her. I learnt baby massage and tried very hard to do all the ‘right’ things, like carrying her in a sling and talking and singing to her. When she was about nine months old I noticed a big shift and I felt more connected to her.
“But when I had my second baby, I fell in love instantly. I bonded with her so deeply the moment I set eyes on her. I remember constantly kissing the top of her head and feeling so in love with her. At the same time, I felt guilty about not having had that with my first child.”
Bonding with your baby is rather like falling in love. It can be love at first sight, as Melanie found – you might feel as though you already know this little being as soon as you meet each other. Or, like Teresa, you might first wonder, ‘Am I meant to love you?’, with deeply tender feelings of connection gradually developing over weeks or months.
Teresa attributes her instant bonding with her second baby to an easier birth. There’s compelling evidence that after a natural birth, you and your baby will be hormonally, chemically primed to engage with each other and fall exquisitely in love.
There’s also an ‘optimal period’ for bonding with your baby, but there are many factors that can affect or delay this, including total exhaustion, complications during labour and separation after the birth. You might also just need time to get your head around what you’ve achieved – the creation and birth of a beautiful baby!
There are a few reasons why the bonding process can be delayed or affected, including traumatic or unpredictable events such as emotional separation between parent and child as a result of the death of a loved one, a relationship breakdown during pregnancy, a previous pregnancy loss, or maternal depression. It can also take a little longer if your baby seems different from what you expected – for example, if you were expecting a baby of one gender and got the other, or your baby’s physical characteristics are more like your partner’s side of the family than your own.
Attachment and bonding are two separate processes. Attachment can be described as the process of ‘learning to love’. A baby’s first attachment to a loving caregiver is the prototype for all future relationships. When your bond with your baby is strong and you respond appropriately to her cues, you’ll teach her that she’s loved unconditionally, just the way she is. She’ll feel safe, learn to trust and be able to form a secure attachment to you. Your baby learns to reach out and form relationships with others from this secure base.
If you don’t fall in love with your baby instantly or she doesn’t feel as though she’s yours just yet, be reassured: bonding isn’t a process that has only one chance to occur. It’s never too late to connect with your child, or to strengthen the bonds between you. Just as with any relationship, conscious effort will strengthen your connection with your little one.
Making time to connect with your unborn baby and, after birth, cuddling skin-to-skin with her placed between your breasts (whether you’re breastfeeding or not) will release hormones that enhance bonding and attachment. Breastfeeding and gazing into your baby’s eyes does the same thing. By holding your baby close and becoming aware of her subtle cues, you’ll learn to understand her needs. And as your connection with your baby grows stronger, you’ll also develop confidence. Soon your inner mother lion will roar!
Pinky McKay, International Board certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC), runs a private practice in Melbourne, specialising in gentle parenting techniques. Her books, parenting resources and free newsletter can be found at www.pinkymckay.com.au.
If you don’t fall in love with your baby instantly, be reassured: bonding isn’t a process that has only one chance to occur.