What No One Tells You About Bonding With Baby

BB_1Although I wanted a baby my whole life, I felt totally overwhelmed when my first was born. I didn’t have trouble bonding with her but I did have trouble with everything else.

Twenty-nine years old, I was a fiercely independent Type A graduate-student-turned professor used to having boundless energy who thought she could do it all. I was sore and upset from a difficult hospital birth. We had very few friends with kids. I didn’t know it was okay to accept—let alone ask for—help. When my friend Veronique and her mother offered to bring over food, I was too embarrassed to say okay. Our tiny, squawky, beautiful frog-legged daughter was seven days old. My breasts hurt. I was exhausted. I didn’t feel like getting out of bed. But I came out and socialized. And made Veronique and her mother lunch.

It wasn’t until a whopping breast infection forced me to slow down that I began to realize that Life After Baby might move at a different pace than Life Before Baby. It took a long time after that for me to understand that I’d be a better person for all the changes.

If we spend time thinking about it (which we often don’t), most of us believe we’ll transition into motherhood easily. I’m sure lots of women have no problems in those early heady days of being a first time mom. But I’d also be willing to bet that even the moms who look like they were born to smile at their babies (and manage to find time to take a shower) have ups and downs at the beginning.

With the vantage of hindsight, a lot of parents confess that the early days of life with a new baby were hard. Many moms I’ve talked to over the years have had trouble bonding with their babies, a process they assumed would be natural and easy. (I’ve written about my difficulties bonding with my second born here.)

When Megan’s son was born nothing went as planned. Megan expected an on-time baby and a typically long first labor. Instead Tristan was born six weeks early and delivered in under two hours.

“I was shocked,” she remembers. “I really didn’t have time to know what I felt.”

The doctors whisked her five-pound son off to the neo-natal ICU, where he was kept for a week. Not allowed to sleep with her baby, Megan had to open her shirt and bare her breasts in front of the nurses, doctors, and other parents in the NICU in order to cuddle and breastfeed Tristan. She felt frantic with worry and had a really hard cementing their bond.

“The NICU is not conducive to bonding. It’s too bright, too sterile, and filled with noisy machines that monitor your baby’s every breath and heartbeat … Babies are enclosed in their plastic isolettes … They get poked and prodded at by nurses daily. And they’re often put on artificial feeding schedules that don’t jive with your mother-instincts,” Megan told me a few years ago. “It takes a very clear head—which is distinctly not where you are after the birth of your baby—to keep a good sense of your priorities and to be able to bond with your child.”

Although some women bond instantly with their new babies, others find that bonding is hard won. It wasn’t until Tristan, who grew into a golden haired toddler with green eyes and a mischievous grin, was four months old that Megan felt truly connected.

“Once I got him home, I felt more at ease,” she says. “But also terrified by my fatigue and the overwhelming responsibility of caring for a newborn. To be honest, I only really stopped feeling insane at about three or four months, once our rhythms were a little more settled and he (and I) seemed less fragile.”

Myth: Normal women bond right away with their babies.

Reality: It often takes time to feel really connected to a new baby. If you’re caring for your child—holding him, feeding him, cuddling with him—even if you don’t feel deeply connected, you’re doing what you need to do. The bonding will come, in its own time.

“Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t immediately swoon over the screaming, wet miracle that just gave you stretch marks and a prolapsed bladder,” says my friend Holly, a mother of four from Frederick, Maryland who found bonding with her children to take longer than she expected. “Just put in the time—the bonding will come.”

Myth: If you have negative feelings about your new baby you’re not a good mother and you won’t bond with your child.

Reality: Negative feelings are perfectly normal and no indication of parenting competency, whether they’re directed at a newborn, a stubborn toddler, or a disrespectful teen. “It’s very normal to have ambivalent feelings,” said Jane Babbit, a labor and delivery nurse I talked to who has been helping new moms for over 25 years.

If you have dark thoughts about throwing yourself under a truck, leaving the baby on the roof of the car, or worse, you’re not alone. Though most women are ashamed to admit to these kinds of bad feelings, many of us have them. There’s a reason why many totalitarian regimes use sleep deprivation to torture dissenters. But what do you do when you’re home with a baby and you can’t turn off the Negative Channel in your brain? The best way to combat bad feelings is to get help and not become isolated, Babbit says. Join a new mom’s group at the hospital, find a breastfeeding support group through La Leche League, start a playgroup, and be honest with friends and family that you’re suffering and need help. Connecting with new moms and sharing your feelings are often all that you need to help them go away.

Myth: Even after a hard labor, you forget the pain and feel instantly connected to the baby.

Reality: A physically or emotionally traumatic labor often requires a longer recovery and may mean that it takes longer for you to feel connected to your baby than if your labor goes smoothly. Disappointment, feelings of failure, and a long postpartum recovery may all take your attention temporarily away from your newborn and shake your self-esteem.

That’s what happened to Margot of Newburg, Oregon, when her son was born. Although she had no trouble bonding with her first two babies, both girls, her long third labor exhausted her to the point of apathy. “The labor was long and then suddenly stopped,” she told me. “I needed artificial hormones to get the contractions going again, and after many more long and miserable hours of labor, out he popped. I took a look at him and thought, ‘Who cares!’ I rolled over and went to sleep.”

Morgot’s son spent his first 48 hours in an incubator, taking bottles from the nurses. When the nurse finally brought David in she warned Margot he would not know how to breastfeed. “I felt nothing,” Margot recalls. “Finally, he was out of danger, and it was time to hold David in my arms and feed him myself. We looked at each other—strangers. I held him to my breast. He opened his mouth and glommed on fast. Trouble feeding, no way! I stroked the fuzz on David’s head. The distant, ‘what’s the big deal’ feelings of a moment ago were pulverized. A sense of love and nurture flowed from my milk into David’s tiny frame. We bonded forever, and are close to this day.”

A lot of new moms don’t get over their negative feelings as quickly as Margot did. “After a long hard labor, it’s no wonder women sometimes feel great distance from this little stranger who has arrived to take over their lives,” says Meredith Small, a cultural anthropologist at Cornell University and the author of Our Babies, Ourselves: How Culture and Biology Shape the Way we Parent, “Bonding is not instantaneous, but a process—a relationship that grows from being together over time.”

Myth: New moms and new dads have similar bonding experiences.

Reality: While both parents can simultaneously feel bonded to the new baby, when one parent is having trouble bonding this often makes room for the other parent to bond.

“I was intimidated out of my mind,” my friend Katelyn, whose son was born by emergency C-section, remembers. Her husband cared for Aidan and held him most of the time because she was terrified that she would drop him. Although Michael bonded easily with the baby, the process was much harder for Katelyn. “I felt like I was thrust into a new world that no one had prepared me for … there was so much to do to keep this tiny person alive. Michael was much more sure of himself.”

Megan’s husband also had a much easier time adjusting to becoming a father than she did. “[The experience in the] NICU was actually a blessing in disguise for my husband,” she says. “Had we been at home, it would have been all about non-stop, unhindered mother-son time. But in the hospital, while I was in surgery (for removal of my placenta) and recovery, Michael was by Tristan’s side. He never missed a single feeding for the entire week we were there. I would go off and pump milk, while he fed Tristan the milk I had previously pumped. So he got some great bonding time with his son that he might not otherwise have had.”

For another mom’s husband the opposite was true. Leah bonded so strongly to her son Kevin—who was very fussy and nursed non-stop—that her husband Ethan felt left out. “I think Ethan felt a bit overwhelmed by the crying, which Kevin did quite a lot of,” Leah explained. “Ethan felt there was little he could do to help, since he wasn’t the one with the mammary glands. Eventually, Ethan became a wonderful and involved parent, but in the beginning, his task was predominantly one of handing Kevin over to me when he cried.”

Something else no one tells you: As your baby grows, your relationship with her changes as well. You can bond instantly with a baby who will then bring you to your knees when she’s a toddler or feel distant from a newborn who ends up becoming your best friend.

What kind of experiences have you had bonding with your baby?

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