Mums often expect an instant bond with their babies. Dr Susan Pawlby and Dr Lucy Findlay explain why bonding can take time and suggest some helpful tips.
Of course, most mums want to feel a sense of warmth and protection towards their newborn baby. But if you’re just not having those feelings, you’re not alone – around a third of mums in the UK might not experience these feelings. Not having that kind of instant bond sometimes leads to feelings of disappointment, anxiety, inadequacy and guilt (NCT, 2016).
Here we explain how there are things you can do to get to know your baby and help things to improve…
What is bonding – how do I get to know my baby?
The process of ‘bonding’ means forming the emotional connection between yourself as a parent and your baby. An important thing to remember with bonding is that it’s a process – building a relationship takes time.
Why is bonding with my baby so important?
Bonding is important because we know it influences a baby’s response to stress, learning behaviours and social skills (Gerhardt, 2014; NCT, 2016; Leach, 2017).
Why am I not bonding with my baby?
There are several reasons why you might not be experiencing an immediate feeling of warmth towards your baby. It may be because of physical changes and emotional adaptations to pregnancy and motherhood. It might be to do with breastfeeding difficulties or sleep deprivation.
Difficulties bonding with your baby can also be due to the following:
- Your fertility journey, expectations and adjustment to pregnancy and motherhood (Rubio et al, 2017).
- Your own experiences of parental care – experiencing adverse life events in childhood (Pawlby et al, 2011; Plant et al, 2017; Vaillancourt et al, 2017; Stephenson et al, 2018).
- Past or current mental health difficulties (antenatal or postnatal), such as depression, anxiety, OCD, postpartum psychosis, complex-PTSD, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder (Pawlby and Fernyhough, 2009; Kenny et al, 2013; Challacombe et al, 2016).
- Difficulties in your current relationships, such as domestic abuse, isolation, poverty or young age (Domoney et al, 2019; https://www.stefanoufoundation.org/).
- The desire for perfection (Rosan et al, 2016).
- Birth trauma or a difficult birth experience (Ayers et al, 2016).
- Having a baby prematurely or having a baby with special needs or an illness.
Any of these factors might play a part in feeling empty following the birth of your baby. This sometimes leads to feelings of rejection towards your baby, or feeling that you don’t want to care for them.
Try to remember that building any relationship takes time. And there might be various reasons why it’s taking longer to build that relationship with your baby.
Building a relationship with your baby depends on getting to know them. It’s a process of discovery that begins in pregnancy and develops throughout life.
How can I bond with my baby during pregnancy?
In pregnancy, it’s good to take time to think about your growing baby, and to talk, sing, watch and touch your bump. The fetus is able to hear your voice and respond to your touch (Reissland and Austen, 2018).
Music can be really useful as well. Singing and listening to lullabies has been shown to calm and soothe both mums and their babies (Masternak, 2016; Nwebube et al, 2017).
Try to identify what keeps you in balance – whether it’s exercise, yoga, healthy eating or sleep hygiene – and incorporate that into your daily routine. You could also join a group with other pregnant mums, like one of those run by NCT.
As always, try to reduce stress. You could talk about how to do this with your partner, a family member or a friend. You could also ask for help from health professionals if you’re concerned.
And don’t worry if you need to take some of your maternity leave in pregnancy rather than just when your baby is born.
12 Top tips – how to improve your bond with your baby
- After birth, take time to watch your baby. What is he or she telling you? Their behaviour is their language (Brazelton and Sparrow, 2003).
- Babies have six states – deep sleep, light sleep, drowsy, alert and attentive, active alert and fussing, crying. When alert and attentive, your baby might like watching you, so try to stay close.
If your baby is crying, try soothing them by talking in a calm voice while looking at them, then try putting you hand on their tummy as well, gently bringing their arms together across their chest. If they continue crying, try to pick them up, and talk to and hold them calmly, adding rocking and sucking on their hand (for more on this approach, see here).
- Stroking your baby helps them to calm and soothe themself (Pickles et al, 2017).
- The Newborn Behavioural Observations (NBO) is a relationship-building tool that can help you understand and respond to your newborn. Your midwife or health visitor might be trained in this approach and able to share it with you – or there is a website (Nugent et al, 2007).
- Seeing your baby as a person with feelings and emotions – a person who can give as well as receive – might help you slowly to get to know them (Schacht et al, 2017).
- Sing or read to your baby, however young they are. This may be something that you want to read – it doesn’t have to be a children’s book. Your baby just loves to hear your voice.
- Try going for a walk with your baby in a sling, so you can talk to your baby. You could describe the world around you. Being outside is good for you and your baby. You could also include your baby in household tasks.
- Build routines such as bath time into your day.
- Remove expectations – do not try to compare yourself and your baby with others. If you find social media sites are making you feel inadequate, it’s probably a good idea to stop using them – they never tell the whole story.
- Aim to do one thing a day with your baby. Your achievements will be different from what you used to do and that is ok. Try not to worry about scaling back. Remember there is always another day to do something from your list.
- You could try going to groups – baby massage, breastfeeding groups, natter and nurture groups, swimming – when you’re ready.
- Remember that you are not alone.
How to cope with exhaustion and bonding problems
Sleep deprivation can leave you exhausted, resentful and irritable. It’s often one of the reasons why you may find it difficult to build up your relationship with your baby. If you think this might be the problem, try establishing a day–night routine to help your baby to know day from night.
Here’s how one mum did this…
“I carry my baby around in a sling for part of the day so he can sleep in the fetal position on me. He likes feeling the warmth and closeness. And when he’s awake, he can look out at the world.
“This seemed to help him get into a sleep–wake pattern in the day. I also keep the bedroom dark and silent with no distractions, so that at night he can more easily sleep in a cot. He also likes being wrapped in a sleeping bag.”
Recovering from a difficult birth and getting to know your baby
Your baby’s birth might not have gone to plan and you may have feelings of failure, inadequacy, guilt and resentment. Something that can help is trying being still and watching your baby.
Did you know that from birth, your baby can focus on your face at a distance of 30 cm? They can turn their head to your voice and they prefer a familiar voice and touch.
Here’s how one mum recovered from her difficult birth to bond with her baby…
“By watching my daughter and seeing her as a person with her own feelings and emotions, my relationship with her began to grow. I felt a warmth and glow take the place of the void that I’d felt so much in the first few weeks after I’d given birth to her.”
Recovering from mental health problems and bonding with your baby
“While I recovered from acute postpartum psychosis, I felt very anxious and paranoid. I was afraid of my newborn but also frightened of what other people thought about my (lack of) mothering abilities.
“I was a patient in a mother and baby unit and felt watched and judged. I was also convinced that my illness meant that my son was badly damaged and that he would grow up to be a ‘psycho’ too.
“The mother–baby relationship sessions that we were lucky enough to be given at the unit were absolutely crucial to my recovery. Through these very practical, supportive sessions, they showed me how responsive my baby was to my eyes and voice, and how well he was developing.
“It was this kernel of confidence which then grew and grew into a meaningful recovery – one where before long I was doing visits home and planning ahead for the future.”
Feeling inadequate and bonding with your baby
You might feel that your partner is better able to establish a relationship with your baby than you. If so, this can lead to feelings of jealousy, inadequacy and competitiveness.
The best thing to do is to try to talk this through with your partner. Here’s how this went for one mum…
“I asked my partner for his support and tried and see how important it is to work together as a team with him. This also helped me to be able to identify those moments when I felt more comfortable with my baby than my partner did, and vice versa.
“I talked to my partner and found he experienced feelings of inadequacy similar to those I felt. It was such a relief and really helped us to explore these feelings together and sort them out.”
Being a perfectionist and bonding with your baby
You might feel that you’re not the perfect mother that you want to be. You may have left a job where you were successful and in control. And now you feel out of control, and judged by family, friends and health professionals.
Yet it’s good to remember you may be your own worst judge and that this might be leading to feelings of anger, inadequacy, low self-esteem, lack of confidence and isolation. The best thing for your baby, you, your partner and your extended family is to try to aim for ‘good-enough’.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help either. You are not alone in feeling empty, or overwhelmed or unable to cope – one in three women feel that way. Here’s how one mum felt…
“Once I started to take the pressure off myself and see that I really am a good enough mum, it helped me to relax and get to know my baby.
“I also tried not to respond to the pressures from other people’s unsolicited opinions and advice. At the same time, I know I have to remember that genuine support from my family, friends and health professionals is important and good for me and my baby.”
This page was last reviewed in January 2020.
Our support line offers practical and emotional support with feeding your baby and general enquiries for parents, members and volunteers: 0300 330 0700.
You might find attending one of our Early Days groups helpful as they give you the opportunity to explore different approaches to important parenting issues with a qualified group leader and other new parents in your area.
Make friends with other parents-to-be and new parents in your local area for support and friendship by seeing what NCT activities are happening nearby.
Contact specialist organisations like PANDAS for more help and support with postnatal depression.
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