By Debbie A. Heaton
Ever notice how your baby’s face—those chubby cheeks and sparkly eyes and that mischievous smile—is somehow more fascinating to watch than even your favorite television program? That’s no coincidence. The two of you are hardwired to thoroughly enjoy each other’s company. And if you follow your instincts and develop a great rapport now, you could set him up for a lifetime of stellar relationships.
Bonding is the intense attachment that you and your baby have for each other. It’s the feeling that makes you want to shower your baby with love and affection, when you know you would do anything to protect him. And while you’re savoring the high, the hormone dopamine is also helping your baby attach emotionally to you.
You probably started to bond with your baby while he was in your tummy. This love-before-sight may have begun when you first felt his movements or hiccups. Or it may have started when you saw him grow week-by-week at your ultrasound scans, or developed as you massaged or talked to your ‘baby bump.’
As parents, when we spend time loving our infant, we are also helping to safeguard their health. How? Attentive mothers are helping to buffer their child against chronic stress, which can cause sleep disorders, digestive problems, memory impairment, depression, and obesity.
Bonding with your baby is both intuitive and a joy. Attachment isn’t about acting the ‘correct’ way; it’s about watching your child and responding with sensitivity. So if you are both having a good time, you’re doing it right!
What can parents do to bond with their infant and continue as they grow?
Birth to 3 months: Did you know there’s a reason the scent of your baby’s skin triggers pangs of affection? It’s true! When you smell, hold, or breastfeed your infant, your body releases oxytocin, the bonding hormone that prompts new mothers to be more loving and protective of their infant—and also encourages him to cuddle right back.
From birth, your child is programmed to connect with you. He can distinguish human faces and voices from other sights and sounds, and more than anything, he loves watching your every move. He sees best at about 8 to 12 inches—the exact distance between his face and yours when he’s cradled in your arms. He can even recognize his parents’ voices and will turn when he hears you speak. Babies are very eager for face time with any caregiver who is willing to hold them.
If your newborn smiles in the first month or so, sorry to say it but that smile doesn’t mean much! It’s just a reflex. By six weeks, though, babies start to respond to their environment, and by two to three months their brains are developed enough that they can look right at you when they smile, letting you know that they are pleased with your company.
Build your bond by showing your baby you care. Hold him when you’re able and pay attention when he’s squirming or unusually quiet. This will help you figure out how he tells you when he’s hungry or content. Answer his cries, provide plenty of eye contact, talk to him, and smile often. Breastfeeding, cuddling, and giving him massages are great ways to bond as well. Remember, interacting with your baby as you care for him doesn’t just help you to bond; it also helps your baby’s brain to grow and develop.
During face time, interact using expressions, coos, and cuddles that feel natural to you—but don’t just plaster a grin on your face every time you turn his way. Why? Because he knows when you are faking! Babies are very intuitive. If you are smiling, but it’s not related to what he’s doing, he’ll prefer to look somewhere else.
4 to 8 months: At this point, you are your child’s first friend. Your baby’s developing intellect helps him to recognize that his interactions with you are different from those with strangers. Young children learn that “Mom comforts me, and when I cry, Dad usually feeds me.” Your child expects certain things during an exchange with the adults in his life.
If you’re consistent in your efforts to soothe, and your baby feels as if you’re watching out for him, he’ll begin to play with toys, your keys, and anything else close at hand. He will begin to explore his world, which is exactly what his developing brain needs right now. An infant learns something unique when he picks an object up or puts it in his mouth, versus just looking at it. It’s important that your baby is encouraged to get hands-on with his environment. If your infant is feeling comfortable in his surroundings, your transition back to work won’t be as frightening for him. He’ll be capable of playing without you by his side. This is the appropriate time to start teaching your baby that strangers, like daycare workers, will take good care of him. When you return home, he’ll greet you with a smile. If he turns away, it’s because he’s learning to regulate emotion and the joy of seeing you is too intense.
Build your bond by feeding your child’s hungry mind as you interact with him throughout the day. A baby can tell when you’re ignoring him—say, by propping him up in front of the television—and when you’re just plain busy. So talk to your child whenever you’re near him, and play peek-a-boo as you fold clothes. As he starts to play with toys, encourage his efforts and don’t take it personally if your child is not in the mood. Sometimes infants need to look away—constant interaction is awfully tiring!
9 to 12 months: Focus on security. Your child may start clinging to you when you leave his side. It’s normal—and temporary! Separation anxiety appears around the ninth month, when your baby can remember you even when he can’t see you. But he can also sense patterns and understand that you always come back. By giving your baby consistent cues, he knows you’ll come back and he’ll trust that you will. The children who struggle the most are often those who can’t predict whether their caregiver will come back or not.
Amid those tearful goodbyes, you’ll see another social stride: Your child will begin to communicate using gestures, like waving or raising his arms to be picked up. Babies will start to share their intentions as well. For example, he may stare at something fully expecting that you’ll turn to look at it too. He’ll also ‘share’ smiles, grinning at a toy and then turning his toward you.
Build your bond by continuing to send clear, consistent signals that you love your baby and that you’re doing your best to interpret what he’s trying to tell you. That isn’t a marching order. It’s more like a permission slip to hit pause on your busy life and do what your instincts are telling you to do. In our culture, it’s hard to put down our finances or laundry and just sit with our baby and see what he’s doing. Your baby does want to engage with you, so allow yourself to let the other stuff go sometimes and just enjoy him! Weigh the pros and cons: A sink full of dirty dishes or snuggle time. I’ll take the hug anytime, anywhere!
In an ideal situation, the journey of bonding progresses smoothly from birth through young childhood, empowering the child to venture forth into his ever expanding world with a solid sense of self, but we can only achieve that by responding to our child’s cues, spending quality time with him, and reassuring him that he is both loved and wanted.
Debbie A. Heaton is an author, parent educator, and a master’s level therapist currently employed with The Parent Connection, a member of Arizona’s Children Association Family of Agencies. The Parent Connection utilizes the Adlerian approach to parenting.