New parents hear a lot about ‘bonding’ – but what does it actually mean and how does it happen?
The bonding process is the intense connection that develops between parents and their infant. The strong ties that form – often before the baby is even born – foster a sense of security and positive self-esteem for the baby and are thought to influence the infant’s future close relationships and emotional development.
Bonding is a process, rather than event, as it continually evolves at a different pace and in a different way for all parents. For some, bonding comes naturally, while others may need some support and help. The parents’ responsiveness to an infant’s cues directly affect bonding – tuning in to what a baby needs and is ‘saying’ enhances bonding, while ignoring a baby can disturb the bonding process.
Touch is one of the most important elements of bonding – and is also the first sense that babies develop in the womb. Newborn babies feel safe and secure when they are kept in close physical contact with their mother, who can even regulate her temperature to benefit the baby. Skin-to-skin contact causes a release of a range of hormones – in both the baby and the parent – that promote caring and loving behaviour. Baby massage is a good example of nurturing touch between parent and child.
Eye contact is another bonding tool we have, and it can be a vital connecting link between parent and child. When a parent gives a positive response to an infant looking directly at them, it affirms their existence and boosts self-esteem. It also helps the parents feel close to their babies when they spend time looking into their infant’s eyes.
Being able to recognise and smell the odour of your baby – and for a baby to be able to smell you -is also reassuring and enhances bonding. Parents and infants that are in close contact with each other will be comforted by each other’s smells – often without realising. Scientific experiments have shown that mothers recognise their babies by smell alone at just a few days old – and sometimes earlier.
Hearing and speaking between parent and infant is another bonding tool. Babies hear their parents’ voices before birth and continue to be reassured by listening to its parents – especially when they use ‘parentese’ or ‘baby talk’ -the special high-pitched tones reserved just for them. And when a baby responds to the parent’s speech with their own gurgle or noise, parents also receive positive feedback that their baby is enjoying being ‘talked’ to.
Likewise, crying is key form of communication for babies and, when parents respond appropriately to their baby’s cries by truly listening to what the baby is communicating, they are enhancing a bond between them.
It may seem simple but smiling is also an element of bonding. The giving and receiving of smiles creates a powerful feeling of love and attachment between parent and baby.
Feeding is an important part of bonding and, when it’s going well, it can be a lovely time spent between parent and child. Breastfeeding mothers are flooded with hormones such as oxytocin while feeding that enhance feelings of attachment towards their baby – and the baby also receives these via the milk. Research has also shown that fathers’ hormone levels can also be positively affected by spending time feeding a young baby.
There are many ways to bond with your baby and every parent-infant relationship
will have its own dynamics.