After baby is born, women will choose one of two routes to feed their new little one: breastfeeding or formula. While “breast is best” is a phrase mom hears repeatedly over nine months and even longer, a new study shows that there is no long-term cognitive benefit to breastfeeding. This may be rejoicing news to many women who can’t breastfeed or simply choose not to.
Although it is true that there are several well-known benefits to breastfeeding, such as reduced infection rates in baby, it turns out that many other factors associated with breastfeeding could be more responsible in determining a baby’s well-being later on in life. For example, the study, published in the journal Pediatrics, found that once socioeconomic factors like income and education of the parents are accounted for, the differences between children who have been breastfed and those who haven’t are slight. And the benefits of breastfeeding become less apparent once a child turns 5, when he or she are back in line with their non-breastfed peers in terms of levels of hyperactivity and problem-solving abilities.
One big factor in determining a happy, healthy baby? Nurturing a good mother-baby relationship, which may or may not mean breastfeeding.
So, how can we best bond with baby? Here are three things to know that go beyond breastfeeding.
1. Bonding isn’t always immediate.
This is probably the most important thing to remember when you are either the mother or father of a newborn. Dr. Mary Beth J. Steinfeld, a developmental and behavioral pediatrician at UC Davis Medical Center and UC Davis Children’s Hospital in Sacramento, California, says that failure to bond with baby can have profound effects on the infant’s development:
When a caregiver consistently responds to an infant’s needs, a trusting relationship and lifelong attachment develops. This sets the stage for the growing child to enter healthy relationships with other people throughout life and to appropriately experience and express a full range of emotions.
While breastfeeding is an intimate bonding activity, other ways to bond with baby include rocking her gently, giving eye contact, singing and talking to baby, and responding to her cries. Bonding should be established within the first few months of bringing baby home, but don’t be surprised if it doesn’t happen immediately. Steinfeld adds:
I urge parents to give themselves plenty of time with their baby and to follow their instincts. Respond to the baby’s cues, and offer love and comfort when distressed. Contrary to the ‘wisdom’ in past generations, responding quickly to crying with holding and nursing will not ‘spoil’ a baby. Instead, babies who are held and comforted when they need it during the first six months of life tend to be more secure and confident as toddlers and older children.
2. Bonding can be tougher for some babies … and moms!
According to a study in 2008, researchers found the potential for mothers who have undergone Caesarean sections to have a more difficult time bonding with babies. However, the study sample was small and shortly after birth, there was minimal difference between mothers who delivered vaginally and those who delivered via C-section and their level of the “love hormone,” or oxytocin that helps mom bond with baby.
Meanwhile, babies born premature and those born with medical problems may take a bit longer to bond. However, infant massage may work — just be sure to talk to your doctor or take a class before trying, so as not to accidentally hurt baby. If you have a preemie, you also can start bonding right away by handling the baby through the openings in her special bassinet, or watching and talking to her before you’re able to hold her in your arms. It’ll help baby learn to respond to your voice and touch.
Additionally, bonding can be hard on the mother’s end, too, with the chances for postpartum depression occurring in 1 in 9 women (and, depression after birth can happen in men, too — about 4% of fathers experience depression before their child’s first birthday). Although it’s suggested that mothers breastfeed right away with baby, if they don’t want to breastfeed or can’t because of lactation problems or exhaustion from a tough delivery, there are plenty of other ways to begin the bond. The most important things you can do for baby’s bond is to touch, talk, and make consistent eye contact.
3. Fathers — and siblings — also should work to bond with baby.
Dads and older brother and sister are part of the family, too, so it’s important for them to be involved with the baby as a unit if they are in the picture. The Nemours Foundation, a nonprofit pediatric health system, provides some tips for how fathers, specifically, can bond with baby — though some of these ideas aren’t bad for an older sibling to assist with caring for their new little brother or sister:
- Providing support during labor and delivery
- Feeding baby, either formula or pumped breast milk
- Diaper changing
- Giving the baby a bath
- Mirroring baby’s movements and mimicking baby’s vocalizations
- Reading or singing to baby
- Letting baby touch dad’s face
- Using a front baby carrier when going to the grocery store or running other errands
Eye contact, as mentioned earlier, is important for all family members and baby. It has been shown to activate the right side of baby’s brain, which is responsible for social interactions and developing skills like attention, memory, and problem solving. If mother, father, or sibling — carefully, if big brother or sister also are young — are holding baby, it may be easier and better for baby to do so on the left side for “positional bias” with eye contact and thus, an improved bonding experience.
How to get help
If you’re having trouble bonding with your new baby, don’t fret. It takes time, and that “love hormone” isn’t always immediate. Be sure to discuss your issues with your doctor. If you are breastfeeding and having problems with milk production or latching, or have a fussy baby, it’s best to speak with a lactation consultant in your area.
While it may be rare, there’s the chance a bond with baby could be delayed because of a birth injury, such as broken bones or brain damage. It’s scary to think about, but Safe Birth Project is here for you and can help you understand any legal issues that may arise.
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