Bonding after a difficult birth

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Expectant mums and dads have read so many stories and seen so many movies where there is a thunderclap moment when a baby is born and the parents instantly fall deeply in love and bond with this new creature. For some new parents this is how bonding begins, a powerful emotion like a switch has been turned on. For many other new parents bonding is still joyful but is a more gradual process.

How bonding works

Human beings develop unique loving and lasting bonds with our children. This is quite rare in the animal kingdom as our babies and children need us to love them, teach them and protect them for many years. Babies are born very vulnerable and need their parents to provide them with food, warmth and shelter. A baby’s best survival mechanism is to be adorable and to form a powerful loving bond with their parents. Mums often worry if they don’t have a thunderbolt bonding moment at birth. However, it is important to realise that bonding is not a one-off event; it is a process and the bond between baby and parent can grow stronger over time.

Why bonding is important

Babies and children need to be securely attached to their parents to enable them to develop, learn and explore the world. Lots of scientific studies of babies and their parents report that babies with a strong secure bond to one or both of their parents enjoy lots of advantages in their adult lives. A secure bond promotes your baby’s brain development, builds confidence and resilience and, of course, makes them really happy.

Difficult births

If you have had a difficult or traumatic birth you may need to recover and regroup before being with your baby. If your baby is being looked after in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) or the special care baby unit (SCBU), see if your partner can be with your baby and have skin-to-skin contact with them while you are in recovery. Even after a straightforward Caesarean delivery, you may have to be observed in the recovery ward for two hours before you can be taken to see your baby in the NICU ward. But whenever possible babies will be kept with their mum in the recovery ward so that they can be together and breastfeeding can begin.

You can also ask your partner to take along a clean handkerchief that has been next to your skin so that your baby can smell you. The hospital staff will make it a priority that you are taken to your baby as soon as medically possible. In the meantime they will bring you a photo of your baby safe in NICU. They may also help you to express some colostrum so that your baby can receive a first feed of your milk. Remember that it’s OK to ask for all this to happen if it isn’t automatically offered to you.

When you are reunited with your baby, lie them on your chest in skin-to-skin contact. This so-called ‘kangaroo care’ is really beneficial for premature and poorly babies and helps to calm them and regulate their body temperature. It may also stimulate your baby to feed, which will in turn stimulate your milk production and production of oxytocin, sometimes called the bonding or ‘love’ hormone. The more time you can spend cuddling, smelling, feeding and talking to your baby, the sooner you will begin to feel like a mum to this new baby.

Postnatal depression and post birth trauma

If you feel very sad and overwhelmed in the days after your baby is born, speak to the hospital staff, your doctor, your health visitor or your community midwife. They will be able to advise you about local support and help you to bond with your baby.

Even if you are depressed it will really help your baby and you to have lots of skin-to-skin contact and eye contact. It will also calm your baby, reduce their crying and make it easier to be together. Your baby has no expectations and will unconditionally love you, accept you and want to be with you.