I am all for any effort made to keep mothers and babies together immediately following birth. I think it’s normal, instinctive and healthy for all involved– and its far preferable to the old, routine practice of whisking babies away so that the pros could take over. But I do find that the current and generally wonderful emphasis on early bonding can trigger a new kind of anxiety in expectant parents: bonding anxiety.
I’m hearing from moms that they worry they haven’t logged enough hours skin-to-skin, or feel inadequate if, during the skin-to-skin contact, they don’t feel totally and utterly bonded or “in love.” In these situations, I think it’s important to take a step back and look at what’s going on with bonding, or even just to better define what it is.
In Parent-Infant Bonding, first published in 1976, the pediatricians Marshall Klaus and John Kennell described a sensitive period right after birth when the mother and baby have a natural window for bonding: “We believe that there is strong evidence that at least 30-60 minutes of early contact in privacy should be provided for every parent and infant to enhance the bonding experience.” The results of this study, along with the efforts of La Leche League and other childbirth activists, led to the practice of putting mother and baby together immediately or soon after birth—so that this important bonding can take place. The emphasis on the importance of post-birth contact came as a strong reaction to the status quo at the time, which was completely separating mother and baby immediately. To put an end to this, that particular practice, the results of bonding studies were shouted from the rooftops, and the moments after birth were exalted as a crucial time that can have permanent repercussions for the mother-baby relationship.
On a chemical level, there’s lots going on in the hour after birth; the baby often has the ability to “find” the nipple even with the fuzziest newborn eyesight, which leads to colostrum let down, which leads to uterine contractions, which help shrink the uterus. Skin-to-skin contact helps regulate the baby’s body temperature; body smells and the (now familiar) voice of the mother are calming and there’s all kind of beneficial bacteria a mother can pass on to the baby via very early breastfeeding.
In this way, bonding is a basic physiological set of reactions. But bonding is often described as more romance than science: a loving dance, with baby and mother locked into one another’s every move, every touch. Some mothers feel this right off the bat. But for others, dancing (even conceptually) is out of the question. Babies may be whisked off to the NICU immediately after birth. C-sections take time to complete. The lingering pain or shock of labor can blow all other emotions out of the water. The sight of the baby may well freak people out before it fills them with love. The presence of others can obscure any opportunity for private emotions.
Do these scenarios lead to less bonded babies? According to studies it doesn’t seem like it. While immediate post-birth bonding may help foster connection between mothers and infants, going without it is not going to set off a chain of irreversible reactions. “Should a mother otherwise committed to care-giving miss this rendezvous with her infant, and begin to commune the next day, there are no measurable ill effects–provided someone else keeps her warm and safe in the interim….bonding right after birth is by no means essential for the development of love, It can, however, facilitate the process” – Sarah Hrdy, Mother Nature
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Part of this blog post has been adapted from Ceridwen Morris & Rebecca Odes’ From The Hips: A Comprehensive, Open-Minded, Totally Honest, Uncensored Guide to Pregnancy, Birth and Becoming a Parent (Three Rivers; 2007)