or Connect
Mothering › Baby Articles › What No One Tells You About Bonding With Baby

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?

Bookmark and Share

Tags: baby bonding, bonding, difficult labor and problems bonding, difficulties bonding, postpartum depression

Comments (23)

What a fabulous post - I'm sure it will relieve a LOT of guilt. It's so true that new mothers are loathe to admit any sort of negative feelings. When my second was born after a birth fraught with anxiety (when my water broke there was meconium (sp?) in it, so all kinds of specialists rushed in to hurry me up and then suction his lungs; he was quickly whisked away and tested for diabetes on top of it all, since he was over 10 lbs.) I lost a tremendous amount of blood and was so weak that I could not even lift my head off the pillow or stand up for days. What bonding? That did not happen until way, way later, especially since I had the additional responsibility of a 19-month old to care for.
I remember when they wheeled my first child into my hospital room after my c-section and left that I felt totally scared and overwhelmed, like "you're just going to leave her here like that?" I could barely get out of bed let alone care for a baby alone. It was scary. I didn't have any trouble bonding, but I do remember the first couple of months as being really, really hard. I didn't accept help either, but no one really offered. It's just a lot harder than you ever expect.
Wow, you first two paragraphs sound exactly like me, except I hadn't finished grad school (so, no income), and I don't have trouble accepting help when it's offered. But, not nearly enough was offered. Asking is a delicate art I have not mastered. Still struggling, but getting some help.
Wow. What an honest & beautifully written post. It can sometimes be so hard to connect with your baby. I remember the feeling of mild surprise when my first born came out. I'm not sure what I was expecting to happen. I remember thinking I suppose I'd better kiss her- isn't that what I should do?... and it all came gradually after that.
This sounds eerily familiar. I 'had to have' an elcs with my tiny breech baby but was ok the first week of her life. We had to stay in hospital (due to her size, low glucose levels, formula top ups etcetc) and it felt weird suddenly having this tiny baby but I was ok. The second week however was horrible. Everything just came crashing down on me: the realisation that I had a baby, the grief for my natural birth as well as my pregnant belly... on top of that I felt nothing for her, I felt awful and just cried..my poor husband :( didn't know what was happening. I couldn't talk to anyone because I'd just break down and not get the words out. 5 months on I still grief but I am on top of things and full of love for my daughter. :) Great article, thank you. :)
Thank you from the bottom of my heart for writing this. I needed to read it, even 11 months later. I still feel immense guilt for not bonding with my son right away. Before he was born, I thought I would never let him out of my sight the minute he came into the worl...d. When he was delivered via a scheduled yet traumatic c-section, I was content to let my family care for him and, what's worse, send him off to the nursery each night so I could sleep. When I think back to walking into the nursery to get him in the morning and him being the only baby in there, I start to panic. I can't breathe. Tears fill my eyes. I can hardly see to type this right now. How could I do such a thing? How could I send him away? "Myth: Normal women bond right away with their babies. Reality: It often takes time to feel really connected to a new baby." TIME. Who knew? Thankfully, I did manage to establish an excellent breastfeeding relationship with my son, and we are still happily nursing 11 months later. The nursing staff brought him to me during the night to nurse, and he never had a drop of formula. Thank goodness for small miracles.
One thing about NICUs: They aren't all the same. My twins were born 15 weeks early, and yeah, it's hard to bond with a person who looks so... not finished. But a lovely, caring hospital staff made a huge difference for us. We couldn't hold our son for a month, and I let my husband hold him first, because he needed it so much more. But I'll always remember the time that bond clicked for me. It was worth waiting for.
I was one of the lucky ones: Had an instant, mama bear bonding experience with my baby boy. But I've known so many women who didn't feel this way for a host of reasons and you've done new moms everywhere a great service by telling it how it can be here.
This is good. Although I felt completely prepared and ready to be a mom while I was pregnant, and I had a great natural home birth, and our breastfeeding relationship was great from the get-go -- my baby was about 4 months old before I really felt like a mom and started to enjoy her. I loved her, sure, but I didn't *like* her until later. She was (is) very high needs, and I just wasn't prepared for that. Now she's 21 months old and we have a lot of fun together! It does, indeed, take time.
I remember just feeling kind of dead inside a few weeks after my first baby. It was like I couldn't even focus and didn't really even *want to focus. I guess it was post-partum depression, although at the time, I just felt nothing. By the time the second one came along, the whole thing was a blur. I remember nothing!
It took me four babies to learn how much care I needed after a birth. At 39, I had the best recovery ever, because I hired and borrowed people to take care of EVERYTHING for me, and my husband took two weeks off to fill in the gaps. After several days of nursing in the recliner dealing with a slurpy latch, I took that baby to bed and stayed there. I only got up to eat and go to the bathroom. Our 3 older children were puzzeled about why I didn't come out of the bedroom much, and were probably kept away from me more than was necessary. But I recovered incredible well, and after my two week "break" I was ready to go. It's bad enough when there just isn't any help available for women after birth, but it's even worse when they don't get the help they could get because they don't think they need it.
Great post. Yes there is a myth out there that we bond instantly (LOL we are not ducks!). Human attachment takes place over time created by numerous daily interactions with a primary caregiver. Moms have time to bond with their baby.
This spoke so much to me as well. Personally, I think women need to be a LOT easier on themselves and, even more so, on their female peers. The need to compare and compete that many mothers have is completely puzzling and toxic and starts right from pregnancy! What a shame that women feel bad or wrong for not bonding with their baby right away; how can you bond with a person who you don't even know yet, just like that? Let's be honest! When I had my first son, I was in awe but I definitely didn't feel connected. As many first-time moms must feel, my world as I knew it was gone and after a few days the reality of the unending totality of that came down on me hard. I remember full-out walking out of the house just 4 days after he was born for 3 hours, and crying all the way back home because of how terrible I felt that I didn't at all want to go back home, just knew I had to to feed him. He was colicky so I did not feel very close to him for a long time. But we share a fiercely close bond now and I am sure all the emotions I overcame only served to make that bond stronger and more appreciated. My second son was an experience that was much easier in the early days and as such we bonded more quickly. But there are still moments when I feel disconnected from one or both my sons, where I truly question the wisdom that is the decision to embark on parenthood, and where I would happily walk out the door for an unspecified amount of time and not look back! But time is, indeed, a wonderful teacher and I have learned, with relief, that parenting is an incomparable joy MUCH of the time and that I miss the boys' presences absolutely when I am away from them for too long. Just cause it's "worth it" doesn't mean there aren't going to be days/weeks/months you will have to endure to really bring meaning to that phrase! So feel the doom, gloom, and frustration and bring on the vent-to-a-friend, I say! I think these feelings are necessary in order to feel the intense love, joy, and pride we also feel! We are going to be the most emotional about the people we care for the most, so instead of feeling bad, we should feel proud... the intense feelings - negative OR positive are a sign of just how much we DO love and have a bond with our children!
Just what I needed to hear. I'm pregnant with my first, and things are not going all that well. We are planning a natural home birth, but there is still a lot of fear about the birth, and the bonding after. I have a great hubby to rely on, but this post is exactly what I needed to hear!
i want to thank you for writing such honest words. I tried for three days to deliver my son at home and had to be ransfered to the hospital for a cesearan. After he was born the hospital staff refuesd to let him stay in the room with us and frightened my husband and I with threats of diabetes (he was almost 10 lbs). They hooked him up to IVs and monitors and would only let me nurse him on a 3 hours schedule. Because I was so groggy from the surgery I wasn't even able to hold him or see him until the next morning. I remember feeling completely dead inside, when I looked at him I felt as though i was caring for a stranger's baby. I didn't feel bonded to him for at least a month. I cried constantly and mourned my birth. I felt so guilty for how he was brought into the world and found myself over-componsating by placing thes unrealistic expectations on myself. I was also angry at how we were treated in the hospital and felt liek I didn't do enough to protect my family. It has been an emotional struggle and now 5 months later my heart swells everytime I look at my baby. There isn't a day that goes by however that I don't think of his birth and feel an ache on my stomach for the natural home birth I lost. This article made my feel liek I wasn't alone and for that I am grateful.
I had a lot of issues with depression before I even had my first baby. Mostly because of a deployed husband and a stressful home situation. After my son was born, my husband was able to come home on his 2 weeks and i think that kind of masked som bonding issues I was having. About a week after he left I flew into a rage about something home related and made a 5 hour trip with the baby to see a friend and stayed for a week. (because thats not indicative of some emotional issues) On the way to my destination, he decided he didnt like the car and started crying. I couldnt focus with a screaming newborn and i started really freaking out and I remember feeling so angry with him for screaming and getting me lost in the bad part of town. I wanted to leave him in the middle of that trashy neighborhood... I realized that I needed to get where I was going and let my baby starved friend take over for a while. I finally got there and I dont think I held my son the entire time, except to nurse. I realized that week that it was ok for me to have problems taking care of a newborn when I was a geologically single mother living with her ailing relative. That knowledge didn keep me from having issues and regrets or continuing to try and do everything myself but at least I knew why... By the time my son hit 3 months old, I was smitten. Now he is 19 months hitting the terribly twos. And I am still smitten, though entirely frustrated with no parenting style working on my strong willed child.
With my first daughter I had a unplanned but scheduled c-section and I had to be put to sleep for it because of medical complications that popped up at the end. When I woke up after the c-section I remember being over the moon when I discovered I had had a girl but that first night left alone with my daughter I was completely confused. I remember hearing her crying and I wondered where her mother was and why her mother was not picking her up. It hit me like a ton of bricks when I realized that I was her mother and I had to care for her. It took me over a month before I truly felt like her mother and that I truly connected with her.
What a beautiful and deeply true post you've offered. I'd love to include it among the end-of-chapter resources in the postpartum section of my new book (out in October) "Parenting for Peace: Raising the Next Generation of Peacemakers." You've eloquently and wonderfully gathered such an important series of insights here! Yep, as I've been know to say in presentations on postpartum maternal health, Western culture presumes the transition from pregnant woman to expert-mother-totally-in-love-and-at-ease-with-her-baby will happen immediately and automatically—and often in relative isolation. If it does not, and if key aspects of dis-ease in her new role fall within certain parameters, we slap a label on it and flip to the “Postpartum Depression” page in the DSM-IV. If we had more compassionate, shared awareness out there like you've offered, we'd better serve mothers, fathers, babies--humanity!! Lovely... Marcy PS: Didn't realize this was posted on Mothering.com... where I'm on the expert panel!! lol...
Thanks for all the post, they are all very informative. I am 36 year old 1st time DAD (I know I feel kinda weird typing away. But maybe you guys can help?) My wife and I had a whirl wind romance, quick engagement, 1 st time home construction, and during that new exciting time we found out she was pregnant with our daughter. My wife was in shock and struggled with the pregnancy both emotionally and physically. I was like most dads happy and excited but hell what do we know? My wife had some depression issues prior, and some PPD after the pregnancy. Our daughter was born healthy and energetic I adore her and my wife does to, But my daughter only asks for me (she is 18 months) and all she wants is Daddy (laughing and crying) . I will also note that being a parent is easy for me I have wanted this my whole life. But for my wife, it is very dynamic for her. She is a great MOM, but is struggling to connect with her daughter. Any help would be appreciated. ie books, or websites? Thanks BB
Lisa, it's rare that I shed tears to posts I read on blogs like this... I'm not a Mom yet, and I'm expecting Aunt Flo any minute now so it partially may be that... but my heart goes out to you. You asked the nurses for help. You knew what you needed. Your baby was not entirely alone, they were looking after him, he was safe. My heart breaks that you feel so guilty... but I hope I can help reassure you that you are a good mother because you knew your limits. You were overwhelmed, and traumatized. You needed the one thing everyone has mentioned here: Time. Never let anyone tell you otherwise. *hug* I've also never offered that to a total stranger. Be well. Xs & Os to your baby, too. :) Smile!
Mothering › Baby Articles › What No One Tells You About Bonding With Baby