Bonding with your baby might sound like getting Krazy Glued together, but it’s actually more like a dance. You learn to read and respond to your infant’s nonverbal cues -- her body language, cries and giggles -- and she comes to trust that you are reliable and that she can find ways to connect, communicate her needs, and find comfort. Mutual attachment grows between you. A baby who develops a secure attachment is off to a healthy start. Her strong connection with you helps her grow more independent. In the years to come she will be eager to learn, able to handle stress, and be ready for intimate relationships.
Sometimes bonding starts out with an intense experience of falling in love with your baby. But it can also develop gradually in the course of daily caregiving. Through skin-to-skin contact, feeding, giggling, playful “conversations,” diaper changes and cuddling, you and your baby gain a deep sense of belonging to each other.
Instead of amusing her with electronic toys, or talking on your cell phone because she isn’t ready to communicate in words, realize that you are your infant’s favorite entertainment. She loves your voice and facial expressions and tries to imitate these. She enjoys hearing you talk about the chores you’re doing, the places you’re visiting, and how you feel about her. Eye contact, nuzzling, and playful belly kisses are all fun ways to play together. Put the baby on your lap. Let her play with your hair or face. A toy or book can help you connect, but often a funny face or silly sound is all you need.
If you and your partner are both involved in daily care, your baby will come to recognize and enjoy your different voices, touches, and smells.
Playfulness, caregiving and skin-to-skin contact are the ingredients of bonding, but there’s no standard recipe, no “right” way to do it. Let it happen spontaneously as you pay attention to your baby’s signals, learning to recognize when she wants you to be close or playful and when she wants to rest. Over time you will learn to distinguish the cry that means “I’m hungry” from the one that says “I’m tired.” You will start to recognize when your baby is telling you she is over stimulated, gassy, startled by a loud noise, afraid of strangers, or colicky. Although you won’t always be able to soothe her, she will sense that you’re trying.
Babies have different temperaments and different bonding styles. Some enjoy rocking or being walked back and forth or bounced. Others like soft music and gentle stroking or firm holding. And all babies reach a point when they’ve had enough. When they’re overtired they may begin to move frenetically. It might take some time before you recognize that this is not an invitation to play, and learning when to let her rest is part of bonding, too.
As your infant grows, she will explore what it means to be connected to you while being a separate (very small) person. Helping her begin to discover how to stay connected to you while exploring her independence means reassuring her that you are nearby when she needs you but not clingy. During the first eight months, she will be eager to stay close to you. When she is separated from you she will become upset and distressed. Don’t worry that she is lacking independence; she is displaying the healthy attachment that will give her confidence all through life. As she learns to crawl and takes her first steps, she will venture away from you and return for reassurance and comfort.
You don’t have to be perfect at bonding. There’s no such parent. You and your baby are discovering each other. You have time. Some parents and infants are more easily matched temperamentally than others. If your baby was premature, if the birth was difficult, if you are experiencing postpartum blues or depression, if your infant is colicky, or if your child was adopted, then bonding may take a little longer. As long as you do your best to respond to your baby and learn what she wants to tell you, you only need to “get it right” about one-third of the time. You and your baby are likely to be in and out of sync with each other, but what matters most is that even when you fall out of sync that you find each other again.
If you’re really having a hard time or feeling indifferent towards your baby, get help. Your infant can’t tell you in words, but she absorbs your stress like a sponge. Getting the support you need from others and learning ways to calm yourself down will ensure that you feel better and will help your baby feel soothed. Get help with housework, meals and babysitting. Take a yoga class. Join a new parent support group. Share your feelings with a friend or loved one, or talk to a therapist who is experienced in postpartum support.
Go to www.earlymomentsmatter.org to learn about attachment and to get an award-winning toolkit that introduces ways in which parents and caregivers can help their children build secure attachments.