When your baby is born, you may feel an almost overwhelming sense of love, and a strong desire to protect her. But bonding is an individual experience, so don’t worry if this isn’t immediate. It will take time to get to know your newborn, and bonding develops and strengthens through caring for her.
For both parents, the important thing is to get used to looking after your new arrival – being close to her, talking to her, holding and cuddling her. This increases your confidence as a parent and also gives your baby the best start, emotionally, physically, mentally – and helps breastfeeding too.
Holding your baby skin-to-skin
You’ve probably heard about the importance of skin-to-skin contact, where you hold your nappy-clad baby against your bare chest (with a light blanket or cardigan over you for warmth if needed). Early skin-to-skin, ideally within an hour of birth, helps release hormonal triggers that encourage your newborn to find your breast and begin sucking on your nipple.1 One study found newborns who spent over 50 minutes in a skin-to-skin position were eight times more likely to breastfeed spontaneously.2 Skin-to-skin contact isn’t just for that first hour, either. It’s wonderful for any time your baby needs calming or comforting, and to help boost your milk supply.
Skin-to-skin also has many other benefits for your baby, such as regulating her heartbeat and breathing, as well as keeping her at the perfect temperature and helping to maintain healthy blood-sugar levels.3 If you’re not able to be with your baby straight after birth for any reason, your partner will be encouraged to hold her skin-to-skin to give her these benefits and keep her feeling safe, loved and warm until you’re ready to do so yourself.
Oxytocin: Vital for breastfeeding and bonding
Adjusting to motherhood can be daunting, but did you know those precious skin-to-skin moments are soothing for you as well as for your baby?
During skin-to-skin, you’ll release a powerful cocktail of calming hormones, including oxytocin – often referred to as the ‘love hormone’ or ‘cuddle chemical’. Released whenever you’re close to your newborn, and even when you simply smell her or think about her, this clever hormone helps you adjust to motherhood in a number of ways. It enhances your ‘mothering behaviours’ – things like caressing, making eye contact and using affectionate language.4
It also has anti-anxiety and anti-depressive properties, and may help protect against postnatal depression.5 It’s also thought that early release of oxytocin primes your brain for breastfeeding your baby, as well as stimulating your breasts to make milk.6
You’ll also release beta-endorphin, a hormone that encourages you to respond to your baby’s needs. Don’t be surprised if the urge to soothe her when she cries is overwhelming at times – this is a normal maternal instinct. Beta-endorphin also creates feelings of pleasure and calmness.3
How your newborn baby looks
Although you’ll probably think your baby is the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen, newborns can look squashed, wrinkly, and even be bruised or have a pointy head after birth – particularly if you’ve had interventions such as forceps or a ventouse (vacuum-assisted delivery).
Your baby might also have ‘stork marks’ (also known as ‘salmon patches’) – red markings that disappear within a few months – or her hands and feet may be blueish in colour. These are all perfectly normal.
Within the next few days, her skin should smooth out, her head will become rounder, and the vernix – the creamy white substance that protected her skin in the womb – will disappear. Don’t try to wash off vernix as it’s a natural moisturiser.
For the first few days, your baby only needs to have her head, bottom and genitals washed (unless she does a big poo that gets everywhere and needs washing off!), you don’t need to bath her.
Cleaning your baby can be a lovely way for your partner to bond with her and feel more involved if you’re exclusively breastfeeding. The end of your baby’s umbilical cord usually falls off in the first two weeks. It might not look very pretty, but as long as it is kept clean and dry, it will be fine.
Making eye contact with your baby
Your baby can see in black, white and grey from birth (by around three months old, she’ll be able to make out colours more clearly)7 and can focus on things less than 25 cm (9.8 in) away. That’s near enough for her to see your face when breastfeeding – she might even make eye contact with you for a few moments. In the early days your baby will be breastfeeding very frequently, so you’ll be experiencing this intimate connection multiple times a day.
Using your voice to bond
A full-term baby’s hearing is well developed. Foetuses respond to sounds from as early as 19 weeks of pregnancy,8 and newborns have been shown to prefer their mother’s voice9 to others, and even to recognise melodies they heard in utero.10
Speaking softly to your newborn helps develop a two-way relationship, which is important for her future social skills.11 You could talk about anything, from who’s visiting to the view from your window – it really doesn’t matter, newborns are a captive audience!
“Whenever I took Iris for walks in the early days, I’d point out what I could see – trees, flowers, children playing,” says Anna, mum of one, UK.
Singing is also a fun way to bond,12 even if you don’t have the best voice: “When my daughter Leni was tiny, I’d sing while changing her nappy,” says Charlotte, mum of one, UK. “She’s now 18 months old and I still sing those same songs, usually before bed, which she loves because they’re familiar and calming.”
The power of touch
Touch is incredibly important for your baby. Cuddling, stroking, rocking and caressing her are all brilliant ways to soothe and make her feel safe,13 as well as getting that oxytocin flowing. And did you know she can already grasp? Try touching her palms or stroking the soles of her feet and see what happens.
“Vivienne and Marcus loved having their feet rubbed as newborns and they still get foot-rubs at bedtime now. Just holding them in my arms as often as possible was a lovely way to bond,” says Rachelle, mum of two, Australia.
Dee, mum of one, South Africa, found carrying her newborn in a wrap-style sling was another way to create a connection, and had other benefits too: “It really helped establish breastfeeding. She’s 17 months old now and she still enjoys the closeness of being in a wrap.”
Attracted by your scent
Your newborn’s sense of smell is also highly developed and plays a vital role in bonding. At birth she’ll be drawn to the scent of your breasts – scientists think this is because the Montgomery glands (the little bumps in your areola, the darker-coloured skin around your nipple) secrete an oil that has the familiar aroma of amniotic fluid.14
Your baby will also recognise your body’s smell and can even tell the difference between the scent of your breast milk and that of another mum.15 And when you cuddle and smell each other it leads to an oxytocin surge which, as we’ve already discovered, helps with bonding and breastfeeding.
Finally, remember every mum and baby are different, and getting to know each other can take time. If you have any questions or concerns, contact a healthcare professional for advice and support.