Long before I had children, I heard my friends speak in superlatives of their first days of motherhood. Posted on their social media, along with perfect mother-baby pictures, they'd write, "My heart is so full; I'll never be the same!" When I was pregnant with my first child, I worried about how I might respond those first few days — knowing I'm often more of a thinker than a feeler.
While my initial days with my daughter were unforgettable, they didn't deliver an emotional high. I loved staring at her perfect skin and cuddling her warm body. But I wasn’t instantaneously filled with feelings of euphoria.
Thankfully, a friend had told me of her own new-mom experience. After a difficult labor, the nurse had laid her new son, pink and squirming, on her chest. The only thought she could muster in her exhaustion was, Huh. There's a baby on me. Then she asked to take a nap. (After a nice nap, she was ready to fully engage.) For me, it would be several weeks before I felt comfortable responding "yes" to the inevitable question, "Aren't you just so in love?"
Some women experience a difficult delivery and recovery. Others find breastfeeding to be a challenge. And then there's the lack of sleep. On top of the physical pressures, there can also be a more subtle psychological pressure — imagined or otherwise — to feel a certain way. All of these factors can make bonding with a newborn more difficult. I was treated for pre-eclampsia during labor, and the medication made me sick and my brain foggy. It wasn't until the medication had worn off, a full day later, that I felt able to engage in motherhood.
Other more serious factors can also influence bonding. According to Dr. W.D. Hager, an obstetrician-gynecologist, some of the factors that can make bonding difficult are an unwanted pregnancy, marital disharmony, financial stress and emotional instability. Bonding with baby can be especially difficult for mothers who may have felt rejected or abandoned during their own childhood. Couples may want to seek counsel if any of these stresses are present.
Even if strong nurturing feelings aren't immediate, bonding with our infants is essential for their well-being. "It's of critical importance for the infant to feel loved, cherished and cared for," Hager says. "We have evidence that even in those early days of life, and even in utero, infants respond to appropriate bonding and caretaking."
Building the Bond
To foster bonding, use physical touch. Hold the baby in a cradling position and make eye contact (once those eyes start fluttering open). Stroke the baby gently. Talk to her. Sing to her. It's important to spend enough focused time with babies so they don't feel ignored. Skin on skin has also been proven to be a good bonding experience.
Dr. Craig Van Schooneveld, my father-in-law, is a pediatrician with three decades of experience. "There are three methods of communicating love to your infant," he says. "Touch, eye contact and focused attention. You can never give children too much of those three things."
One way moms can promote bonding is to take care of their own health. "Nutrition, exercise and making sure you get enough sleep are key," Hager says.
Don't be shy to ask for help. Ask friends or family to watch your baby for a few hours so you can have time to rest or refresh yourself. Take a nap. Take a walk. Take a break! You'll most likely feel more able to bond with your child when you aren't as emotionally and physically exhausted.
In the first days or weeks after giving birth, many women experience the "baby blues," a mild depression that lasts for two weeks after childbirth. It can express itself as anxiety, irritability, sadness and mood swings. This can make bonding difficult for moms.
If these feelings are prolonged and don't subside two weeks after childbirth, then a woman will often be diagnosed with postpartum depression, according to Hager. Postpartum depression can result in symptoms such as insomnia, irritability, anger, mood swings, fatigue or withdrawal from family or baby. These symptoms can also lead to an inability to bond with the infant, and may even cause some women to feel that they might want to harm themselves or their baby.
Bonding with my second child was a completely different experience than with my first. The moment I heard and saw my second daughter, I burst into tears. I already knew the joy awaiting me, and I was reminded that every mother and child combination is unique.
God knit together your baby and wants to prepare you for that unique child. Pray that He will help you be exactly the mother your baby needs — and that He will strengthen the bond between you.
If you think you may be experiencing postpartum depression, see your doctor. With treatment, the symptoms can be handled. Even if you are not experiencing the symptoms of postpartum depression but are concerned about difficulty bonding with your baby, Focus on the Family counselors are here to listen and pray with you, as well as provide guidance and resources to help you thrive. Arrange to speak with a licensed Christian counselor at no cost by calling 800-232-6459 Monday through Friday between 6:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m. Mountain time.