What is bonding and why is it important?

The different roles our senses play in bonding with your baby and how bonding influences your baby’s emotional development, which in turn is the basis for all future relationships.

What is bonding?

Bonding has been defined as “The emotional and physical attachment occurring between a parent or parent figure, especially a mother, and offspring, that usually begins at birth and is the basis for further emotional affiliation.”1

Bonding plays a critical role in your baby’s emotional development, which in turn is the basis for all future relationships. One cannot underestimate the importance of attachment and bonding, but what many people don’t know is what contributes to bonding, how you can enhance it and when it occurs.

Bonding is more than a warm fuzzy feeling – it is a critical, deep emotional involvement with and trust in another person. It is a misconception that bonding is an event or occurs at a given moment such as birth. Bonding is in fact a journey, a process of getting to know, trust and rely on another person.

The importance of bonding

Your baby’s relationship with you is her first experience of people and shapes the way she responds to relationships for the rest of her life. From you she will learn about trust, how to read other people’s emotions and that love and care is a positive part of life.

We know that the way a woman responds to her own baby is strongly influenced by her relationship with her own mother. If your mother was consistent in her care giving and was emotionally available, you would have had a positive bonding experience and will in turn pass that on to your baby. So bonding is not just important for your relationship with your baby but for the long line of mothers and daughters that will come after you.

Bonding also creates expectations about people and what they are capable of. This will have a direct bearing on your child in his or her marriage and other key relationships as they will tolerate and expect things from another person based on their understanding of what love is.

A child with a secure bond has the self esteem and confidence to explore the world from a secure base. A wonderful manifestation of this is seen as an eighteen month old plays. In a novel environment, she will start off very close to her mum and slowly move off to explore this new world. After venturing a few steps away, she will return to her mum who will reassure her with a tiny touch or glance. With this security, she will venture a little further afield. Eventually she will not even need to come back whilst playing, it will be enough to visually reference her mum and continue playing. The sanctuary of a bond allows children to securely explore their world and push boundaries, which is vital for growth and development.

The different roles our senses play in ‘falling in love’ with our baby

There are two aspects to bonding. The first is the emotional tone that you set with your baby by responding to her cries consistently, meeting her basic needs and reading her signals but there is also a sensory aspect to bonding. In order to enjoy interactions with another human being, we need to be able to tolerate and experience pleasure through the senses.

The sense of touch is a powerful sense that is key to soothing and nurturing your baby. Baby massage, cuddling and simply feeding your baby all target the sense of touch. If your baby is hypersensitive to touch, she will have difficulty tolerating you in her personal space. This will result in you feeling ineffective as a mother and unloved. If your baby becomes fractious when touched, over sensitive to touch or is premature, begin with still, deep touch. Still touch is less threatening than light touch or stroking. Place your hand on your baby’s tummy, head or other area of her body and leave it there, containing her. When she begins to tolerate and enjoy this type of touch, you can begin to use deep massage strokes, always avoiding light, tickling touch.

Smell is a fascinating sense, as it is the only sense that has direct neurological links to the emotion center of the brain (the Limbic system). All other sensory information is relayed through the mid brain and therefore is interpreted before a response is elicited. With smell, an emotional response is created before you even register the smell. Just think of how you can feel all warm and fuzzy just by smelling comfort food that your mum used to make for you. Likewise, we use our sense of smell to connect with our partners and feel amorous just smelling their pheromones. You will know that a central part of falling in love with your baby is drinking in that newborn baby smell. To assist your baby to connect with you, don’t wear perfume in the early days – let your natural smells be the one that your baby smells.

Movement is the sense you will use to calm your baby. Soothing and calming your fractious little one is also an important part of being in a relationship with your baby.

Other senses, such as sight and hearing play an important part in bonding as they assist with recognition and memory. Memory is important because it allows your baby to develop expectations of her relationship with you.

The cycle of love

There is a misconception that bonding occurs like ‘love at first sight’. The reality is that it is a process that develops over time. Bonding may begin in pregnancy or even before conception; it may occur like a flash at birth or may in fact take months to develop.

Falling in love in pregnancy – Some parents have waited a long time for their little one and being pregnant brings wonderful feelings of joy. For many pregnant mums, the hormones and expectancy lead her into a love relationship right from the start. In this case, you may begin dreaming of your baby and as you rub your tummy feel the swell of love for your baby. This process has been fast tracked by technology – we know we are pregnant way before women in the past years did. By 17 weeks, most parents have seen their little one at least once. We share early photos of our baby in the womb and so begin to bond early. When your baby beings to move and wriggle you may feel love for this little person. In fact many mums mourn the end of those fluttery feelings after her baby is born.

For others however, pregnancy may be difficult, unwanted or scary. Antenatal depression is being recognized more and more and we now know that it is not uncommon for a woman to feel very ambivalent towards her baby. Likewise, Dad’s may experience depression and anxiety in pregnancy and this will influence their bond with their baby at that time.

The good news is that this is not reason to predict a poor or inadequate bond at a later stage. Most parents will go on to bond well with their little one later.

Falling in love in the delivery room – The moment we meet our babies we expect to feel overwhelming love. For some parents, this is the experience, as they look at this tiny, beautiful, helpless being, they are flooded with feelings of love. Natural delivery of your baby will facilitate this emotional response as all the hormones released by birth create a flood of endorphins that give you a high. If the delivery is difficult or very long or either mum or baby is in danger, the feelings may be very different. Exhaustion and despair if things don’t turn out well can negatively impact on those love juices. Your feeling may be of gloom and being overwhelmed and this will mean you do not feel like you are bonding. On the other hand some mums have a wonderful birth experience, meet their perfect baby, and yet feel no love or great fascination with their baby.

Once again, the good news is that this immediate emotional response does not predict your relationship with your baby and love and bonding may come later for you.

Falling in love after a period of months – For other parents, love is a long slow journey. There are no A-Ha moments, just a gradual development of a love relationship. If this love develops within the context of a caring, consistent relationship, it is no problem at all for your baby.

It is vital that mums know that not everyone is overwhelmed with love at the sight of their baby. If however, you never feel love towards your baby and your mothering role is a process of acting out the motions and you are overcome with depression or anxiety, you do need to get help for Post Natal Depression as this condition may impact on your baby emotionally.

1 The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition copyright ©2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Updated in 2009. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

By Meg Faure