Creating the Ties That Bind

Parent-infant bonding is probably one of the most over-looked and under-assessed aspects of early infant health care visits.  It is not that providers are disinterested in this important process.  Rather, there are so many topics to cover during those early visits and an extensive infant exam needs to be conducted.  This means that certain issues will not be touched on in depth (or possibly at all) during early infant health care visits.  One of the topics that tend to fall by the wayside is parent-infant bonding.  I can only guess that most providers would say that if there was a problem with bonding parents would likely bring it up during the visit.

The fact is that it is actually unlikely that parents are going to bring up issues of bonding in well-baby visits.  The mythology of bonding is that it happens magically and instantaneously the moment a parent first looks the baby in the face.  The reality is that bonding is a process, and that process may start at the moment of delivery or it may not happen until later.   A lot depends on how the delivery went, whether your child had to go to a NICU, and whether there were issues with post-partum depression. There is (but should not be) a certain kind of guilt for those parents who didn’t have that immediate connection, which makes it uncomfortable to share concerns about bonding.  If you do have concerns about the parent-infant bond or just want to strengthen your bond, there are some concrete methods you can use!

Start the bonding process as soon as possible!

You can do this by providing skin-to-skin contact as soon as you are able.  When you do this, your physiology synchronizes with your baby’s.  Studies have shown that doing this stabilizes a baby’s body temperature, and regulates respiratory and heart rate.  If you are able, you can even try breastfeeding in this early stage.

Breastfeeding

Breastfeeding is a great way to bond with your baby.  Besides giving the great skin-to-skin contact that helps synchronize parent and baby, it also teaches moms to read a baby’s cues.  Physiologically, a mother’s body releases prolactin and oxytocin, which relax the mother and allow milk let-down.  These hormones also promote motherly feelings.  If for some reason, breastfeeding is not an option for you (adoption, physical problem or other issues), don’t fret… but do make sure that when you are bottle feeding your baby, you turn off the TV, put away other distractions and spend some time interacting with your baby while feeding.  It will provide you both with a sense of well-being and will allow you to learn your baby’s cues.

Wear your baby

Another great way to learn your baby’s cues, habits, and emotions is to wear your baby while you are doing things around the house.  Babywearing provides you a way to care for your baby while also being able to do other things at the same time.  Your baby will be learning and observing your interactions with the environment, and you’ll be able to check in with your baby with easy eye contact without missing a beat.

Play with, sing to and read to your baby

Use those quiet alert times to interact and build your relationship.  Your tone of voice, touch and facial expressions are all ways of communicating with the baby and assuring them of their secure place in the family.

In doing these things, you should notice yourself beginning to be able to discern different cries or even anticipate your baby’s needs before they reach the point of crying.  You’ll also become more comfortable and less self-conscious in your role.  These are signs of a secure durable attachment, which will set the stage for learning and discipline and will make parenting a highly rewarding experience.

If you still have questions or concerns about bonding, please don’t hesitate to bring them up with your health care provider.  They will be able to help you with individualized advice tailored to your unique situation.

Dr. Vicki Wilkins

Victoria Wilkins M.D., M.P.H. is a hospitalist* in Salt Lake City with current scholarly interests in the area of provider, parent and child communication and health disparities.

Dr. Wilkins received her undergraduate education and M.D. at the University of California, Davis, and a Master of Public Health degree in Infectious Disease at University of California, Berkeley. After completing postgraduate training in Pediatrics, she did a fellowship in General Academic Pediatrics at University of Washington.

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