Monday, February 11, 2008

Myths and Realities of Baby Bonding

When Megan Lewis-Schurter’s son was born nothing went as planned. Lewis-Schurter expected an on-time baby and a typical long first labor. Instead Tristan was born six weeks early and delivered in under two hours.

“I was shocked,” Lewis-Schurter, who is originally from South Africa and now lives in Minneapolis, explained via email. “I really didn’t have time to know what I felt.”

The doctors whisked the 5-pound baby off to the neo-natal ICU, where he was kept for a week. Not allowed to sleep with him, Lewis-Schurter had to expose herself in front of the nurses, doctors, and other parents in the NICU in order to cuddle and breastfeed Tristan. She and her husband felt frantic with worry and had a hard time cementing the bond between herself and her son.

“The NICU’s not conducive to bonding,” sighs Lewis-Schurter. “It’s too bright, too sterile, and filled with noisy machines that monitor your baby’s every breath and heartbeat … Babies are on artificial feeding schedules that don’t jive with your mother-instincts. It takes a very clear head—which is distinctly not where you are after the birth of your baby—to keep a good sense of your priorities and to be able to bond with your child.”

It wasn’t until Tristan, who’s now a golden-haired preschooler with green eyes and a mischievous grin, was four months old that Lewis-Schurter felt truly connected to her son.

“Once I got him home, I felt more at ease,” she says. “But also terrified by my fatigue and the overwhelming responsibility of caring for a newborn. To be honest, I only really stopped feeling insane at about three or four months, once our rhythms were a little more settled and he (and I) seemed less fragile!”

Although some new parents bond instantly with their new babies, others, like Lewis-Schurter, find that bonding’s hard won. Still, bonding between a baby and its caregivers is an essential component to a healthy childhood and a happy mother-child relationship.

“We humans are primates, animals designed by evolution to be physically and emotionally attached to an adult of our species,” explains one of my favorite writers and thinkers, Meredith Small, a cultural anthropologist at Cornell University and author of “Our Babies, Ourselves: How Culture and Biology Shape the Way we Parent.” “Without that kind of attachment, we grow up without the interpersonal skills to make relationships.”

Myth: Normal parents bond right away with their babies.

Reality: It often takes time to feel really connected to a new baby. If you’re caring for your child—holding him, feeding him, cuddling with him—even if you don’t feel deeply connected, you’re doing what you need to do. The bonding will come, in its own time.

“Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t immediately swoon over the screaming, wet miracle that just gave you stretch marks and a prolapsed bladder,” says my friend Holly who found bonding with all three of her children to take more time than expected. “Just put in the time—the bonding will come.”

Meredith Small agrees. “You’ve met a new friend,” she says, “and just like meeting a new friend you both need to get to know one another.”

Myth: You fall in love with your baby and think he's as adorable as ____________ [insert favorite good looking actor's name here].

Reality: Babies have misshaped heads, scaly skin, half-closed eyes, acne, and a host of other not-so-perfect-looking features. Even if you would deny it vehemently, you may actually find your newborn bizarre-looking at best and unattractive at worst. This, like so many things in your life with the baby, will change.

Myth: Even after a hard labor, the pain is quickly forgotten and parents feel instantly connected to the new baby.

Reality: A physically traumatic labor often requires a longer recovery and may mean that it takes longer to bond. Disappointment, feelings of failure (over an unexpected C-section, for example), and postpartum recovery may all take attention temporarily away from the newborn and shake your self-esteem. For new dads who have watched their wives suffer, concern for your spouse's health may make it harder to focus on the baby.

That’s what happened to Margot Finke of Newburg, Oregon, when her son was born. Although she had no trouble bonding with her first two babies, her third labor exhausted her to the point of apathy. “The labor was long and then suddenly stopped,” says Finke. “I needed artificial hormones to get the contractions going again, and after many more long and miserable hours of labor, out he popped. I took a look at him and thought, ‘Who cares!’ I rolled over and went to sleep.”

“After a long hard labor, it’s no wonder women sometimes feel great distance from this little stranger who has arrived to take over their lives,” says Small. “Bonding is not instantaneous, but a process—a relationship that grows from being together over time.”


Anonymous said...

I always go back to my husband, holding our newborn first son, saying: "This sucks! I wish he was 9 so I could take him to a ball game," as a great example of how bonding takes time. Not that he didn't adore our firstborn, but those angry little pink humans can take time to get to know.


Melissa Sovey said...

My husband was the most laid back, natural guy in the whole world with our first born... until we left the hospital. He must have felt safer with the scheduled environment, where friends and family came to drop off gifts and visit and coo over our little bundle. Things were more awkward once we got home. He started going to the park in the evenings for pick-up games of basketball, something he hadn't done since before we were married. He would often leave earlier for work or stay later in the evenings. I was devastated, and confused. Fortunately I have a wise mother who always manages to shine a new light on things for me, and her explanation was right on target. Even after nine months of knowing that the baby was on the way, the reality of having him home and the responsibility associated with this little dependent, knocked my husband sideways for about a week. Everyone's life changes when a new baby arrives and both mom and dad have to make adjustments they hadn't anticipated until that day comes. It just didn't dawn on me how daunted my husband might feel (maybe I was fixated on my own doubts). Anyway, his diversions were short-lived! I have many lovely photos and memories of him bonding with his infant sons... including one of his favorite games when he had all three of them lined up on the floor, the "Sovey Boys Concerto." More on that later!