Bonding with a new baby is different for every family. For many new mothers, strong feelings of love come slowly over hours, days, or weeks. Others experience of rush of strong affection almost immediately after birth. But feelings are not everything. With guidance, experience, and some intuition, most parents learn how to talk, rock, play, and bond with their babies through interactions.
A normal, full-term baby is also programmed to initiate and enter into a bonding relationship. Crying and making other noises, smiling, searching for the breast to nurse, and seeking eye contact give cues for a caring adult to respond.
When a caregiver consistently responds to an infant's needs, a trusting relationship and attachment develops. This sets the stage for the growing child to enter healthy relationships with other people throughout life and to properly experience and express a full range of emotions.
What are some ways to encourage bonding?
Parents who give lots of love and attention to their babies help them develop strong attachments. This affection can help your child grow, learn and connect with others, according to the Child Welfare Information Gateway.
Here are some ways parents can encourage bonding:
- Touch your baby as much as possible. This can mean keeping them close, like in a baby sling or backpack.
- Give your baby attention when they cry and try to understand what's causing them to cry. (Although this might seem easier said than done.)
- Look into your baby's eyes during feeding and while changing their diaper. This is a great time to talk, smile, sing and laugh with your baby.
- Talk to your baby – they will often try to mimic the sounds you're making.
- Once your baby can sit up, spend time on the floor playing games and rolling around with them. You can incorporate games, puzzles and books.
What happens if infant bonding can't happen right away?
There are times when infant bonding doesn't happen immediately. Some babies and their mothers are separated at birth, such as babies who are born premature or ill and need special care. Some children are placed in foster care until they can return to their parents. Other babies are placed for adoption and may not meet their adoptive mother for a while after birth.
Sometimes a new mother feels depressed or weak after delivery and doesn't feel like interacting with her newborn. How much of an effect does that have on an infant?
Fortunately, humans are not completely dependent on those early moments. Children have many opportunities to bond appropriately throughout the first year of life. We know that mothers who adopt babies and even older children are able to form normal attachment relationships.
Still, the first few days of life are believed to offer an ideal opportunity for bonding to take place. Standard practice in most U.S. hospitals allows mothers and babies as much time as possible together after birth.
Even when babies are born ill or premature, the importance of bonding is recognized. Whenever possible, health care providers in neonatal intensive care units (NICU) try to create opportunities for parents to spend time holding and caring for their babies.
Why should both parents and siblings be part of infant bonding?
It is important for parents who didn't give birth to bond with their babies. New fathers and parents who didn't give birth often feel less confident around a baby than new mothers who gave birth. They may feel excluded in the close relationship that develops between the mother and baby. If a baby is breastfed, the other parent may be uncertain about what activities they can engage in with the new baby.
Like birth mothers, fathers and other parents need quiet time to spend holding their new babies close, gazing into their eyes, talking to them and comforting them when distressed. Non-birthing parents may wish to take walks with their babies tucked into a carrier or simply hold their baby while reading or watching TV.
Brothers and sisters also need time to establish a relationship with their new sibling. You might offer young children who can't hold a baby safely to have brief, supervised periods playing next to the baby in a large crib or playpen. Such times often lead to unique responses of excitement and joy from the baby and allow loving relationships to develop.
Can parents really spoil their baby too much?
Infant bonding is very important for your child's development and the ability to form healthy relationships as an adult.
Parents should give themselves plenty of time with their baby and follow their instincts. Respond to the baby's cues and offer love and comfort when they're distressed.
Contrary to the "wisdom" in past generations, responding quickly to crying by holding and nursing will not "spoil" a baby. Instead, babies who are held and comforted when they need it during the first six months of life tend to be more secure and confident as toddlers and older children.
Seek help if you feel that bonding is not progressing as it should. While bonding does not occur instantly for everyone, it should be well established within the first few months after you bring your baby home. For any problem with your baby, ask your primary care provider for help if you feel there is something wrong.
Learn more about infant bonding
- Bonding with Baby (FamilyDoctor.org – American Academy of Family Physicians)
- Bonding with your newborn (MedlinePlus)
Medically reviewed by psychologist Brandi Hawk, Ph.D.