Whether you’ve endured hours of hard labor, survived a rollercoaster ride to adoption or struggled with infertility, the road to parenthood can be a tough one. But you do it all for that big payoff at the end when you finally get to meet your new child.
For some moms, that first meeting is nothing but instant, overwhelming joy. But for others, that emotional connection isn’t quite so immediate.
“The bonding experience is really different for everybody,” says Sally Manion, a certified nurse-midwife at the Midwives Clinic at Northwest Outpatient Medical Center. “You hear a wide range of stories from ‘The moment the baby was put on my belly, I just fell in love’ to, ‘What is this wet, screaming thing they just put on me?’”
Why such wildly different experiences? And is something wrong with you if you don’t feel an immediate connection? (Spoiler alert: It’s complicated and, no, of course not.)
To help you foster a strong relationship with your little one, Manion explains how bonding works, why it benefits both moms and babies and what you can do to nurture your connection.
Bonding with baby has health benefits
Does changing a poopy diaper at 2 a.m. sound fun to you? Didn’t think so. But you do it night in and night out because you’re emotionally invested in the well-being of your child.
“Bonding is a connection that’s both emotional and hormonal, even with an adopted child,” Manion explains. “It’s a connection of love and motivation to care for that baby.”
Believe it or not, this connection starts developing right away, even if you feel like you’re meeting a stranger at first rather than the newest member of your family.
In the hour immediately after birth — often dubbed the “magical hour” — enjoying skin-to-skin time with your baby releases hormones like oxytocin and beta-endorphin. This helps facilitate bonding by reinforcing positive feelings when interacting with your baby, reducing your stress and awakening your baby’s breastfeeding reflexes.
Basically, skin-to-skin time gives you a “hit” of pleasure and happiness that you then associate with your child.
“If you don’t have skin-to-skin contact right after birth, though, that doesn’t mean you’re not going to bond with your baby,” Manion notes. “That bonding can still happen.”
In fact, your brain continues to release oxytocin when you breastfeed and when you touch or gaze at your baby.
Beyond motivating you to tend to your wailing newborn in the middle of the night, a strong bond can also contribute to long-term mental health and happiness for both you and your child.
“As with any positive relationship with people, the longer an emotional connection goes on, the better it is for the soul, mind and body,” Manion says. “That goes for both mom and baby.”
Why bonding takes longer for some mothers
So why does it take some mamas mere seconds to feel that intense connection but other moms much longer?
It all goes back to your unique road to motherhood.
“Bonding can really be affected by your experience in labor,” Manion explains. “Some women have a difficult delivery and are exhausted, and some have scary interventions that can make them emotionally wiped out.”
Other contributing factors to delayed bonding include trouble breastfeeding, sleep deprivation, an extra-fussy baby (hey there, colic) or general difficulty adjusting to your new family dynamic.
Basically, all those challenges that parents of newborns face can contribute to delayed bonding. And depending on your infant’s needs, as well as your individual birth or adoption experience, your ability to form an emotional connection may even be different from child to child.
The most important thing to keep in mind, Manion says, is to not have guilt or shame because you’re not feeling the way you expected or hoped you would.
“My encouragement to moms that don’t feel like they’re bonding with their baby is to just keep going,” she says. “Even if it feels a little bit like you’re just going through the motions, as long as you’re snuggling, feeding, changing and responding to your baby, you’re giving your child just what's needed. The bond will come with time.”
When delayed bonding means something more
While there’s no set time frame as to when you should feel connected to your baby, Manion says it’s important to check in with yourself after a few weeks to see if an underlying issue may be at play.
Postpartum depression is the most common reason why some moms experience delayed bonding, but it’s not the only one.
“Some people will say, ‘Things are going great with my baby, but I’m having a lot of condemning thoughts about myself,’” she says. “Postpartum depression can go in a number of different directions.”
In other cases of a delayed bond, past experiences from your childhood or with your parents can affect how you’re responding to your infant.
That’s why it’s so important to get screened for postpartum depression and to be honest with your partner, mom group, midwife or doctor about where you are on an emotional level so you can seek assistance from a therapist or counselor if necessary.
“Being open about how you’re feeling so others can reach out with support is a helpful way to get through this time,” Manion says. “It’s helpful to let people know that it’s a struggle for you.”
How to nurture the bond with your baby
Whether you connected with your little one instantly or gradually over time, there are plenty of ways to develop and strengthen that bond.
Spend time skin to skin
Along with spending skin-to-skin time during the magical hour, Manion says doing skin to skin during those first few weeks is crucial for releasing the hormones that establish a positive connection to your baby.
Those hormones are also what help stimulate your milk production.
“The more skin-to-skin time in the first couple of weeks, the better the breastfeeding goes,” Manion notes.
On that note, breastfeeding is another great way to nurture your emotional bond with baby.
Remember that pleasure hormone, oxytocin? That’s released every time you breastfeed for an extra boost of happiness that you then associate with your child.
Talk to and snuggle with your baby
While newborns may seem like these baby burritos that just sleep all day and cry all night, they’re absorbing sensory information all the time.
Talking or singing to your child can help you connect more with your little one. And all that verbal stimulation is good for baby’s brain development, too.
“As you’re going about your day, talk to them about what you’re doing,” Manion says. “Even if it feels silly, just saying, ‘We’re getting eggs, and we’re going to cook breakfast,’ helps you understand that there’s another person here with you and that you’re going to value them and talk to them.”
Physical contact like cuddling or stroking baby’s cheek can also help, as does making eye contact and engaging in playtime.
Wear your baby
Want a productive mom hack that doubles as bonding time?
Wearing your baby in a carrier or sling has the benefit of not only getting in some snuggle time but also freeing up both hands for important tasks, like pouring yourself another cup of coffee.
Baby-wearing can also soothe a fussy baby that wants to be held all the time, making this an ideal way to connect with your child while also giving yourself a much-needed break.
Before you know it, your baby burrito will be a full-fledged toddler — and it’ll be hard to imagine how you ever lived without them.
“I think the more connection you feel to your baby, the easier it becomes to do the hard work of parenting,” Manion says. “There’s some superhuman motivation that comes along with that bond with your child.”
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect Northwest Hospital is now UW Medical Center – Northwest, a second campus of the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle.