Bonding with your baby can take time
Bonding with your baby may not be the instant enamourment you expected. Melanie Woodfield explains why attachment, a fundamental in healthy development, can take time and consideration.
If we're honest, most of us would admit to an hour/day/week of not liking our children very much. They can push us to the absolute limit, and the older they get, the more adept they seem to become at knowing exactly what will annoy us the most. And then most of us find that "mummy guilt" kicks in, and we wonder whether our child can sense, in that moment, that we don't like them very much. We worry that they'll pick up on our flash of dislike, and we'll scar them emotionally. We picture our children as adults in a group therapy programme, taking turns saying, "Hi, my name is Susan, and my mummy didn't love me very much..."
Now, before the weight of guilt causes you to collapse completely, please read on. If you've cared enough to worry about the quality of your relationship with your child, and you're interested enough to be reading an article in a magazine devoted to parenting, chances are you're absolutely fine! It's actually reasonably difficult to permanently emotionally damage your child by not loving them enough. It is possible, though, for there to be difficulties with the bond between parent and baby, and that is what has prompted this article. The bond, or attachment between a baby and a few reliable adults is hugely important, and researchers are learning more every day of the benefits of a secure attachment.
While the term "attachment" is rather waffly, it broadly refers to the relationship or emotional bond between an infant and one, or a small handful of, significant adults. The notion of attachment is reasonably new - researchers such as John Bowlby (a psychiatrist) and Mary Ainsworth (a psychologist) began writing about attachment in the 1960s. Their work encouraged the shift from Sigmund Freud's approaches to ideas that are more recognisable in the current time. Freud's ideas were generally that our interpretation of our childhood experiences were related to our emotional and mental wellbeing in later life. Researchers like Bowlby and Ainsworth suggested that the child's actual experiences (e.g. abuse, neglect) were directly related to their later emotional and mental wellbeing.
The majority of infants develop secure attachments with their caregivers. Some infants, however, develop an "insecure" attachment to the significant adults in their life. These insecure attachments can be further broken down into categories of "avoidant", "ambivalent", and "disorganised" attachments. Children with insecure attachments are the minority. They tend to seem oblivious when separated from their parent or caregiver, or can be difficult to reassure or pacify.
A good, secure attachment to one or a few responsive, loving caregivers is a fundamental building block for optimal emotional wellbeing in childhood and in later life. The qualities of these bonds alter how children see themselves, their parents, and their world. For example, a child who has been the victim of abuse and neglect from their parents in early childhood may, deep down, see themselves as unlovable and worthy of rejection. Their perception of the world may be as a dangerous, unpredictable place. These deeply held beliefs can then manifest as "problem" behaviour in childhood - for example, a child may be more likely to interpret a neutral action as threatening (this fits with their framework of the world) and possibly respond in an aggressive way. Or, they may be inclined to hoard food or possessions, as, deep down, they're worried that their needs won't be met in the future.
Risk factors for attachment difficulties
Research tells us that particular groups of mums are most at risk of finding it more difficult to bond with their baby. This is not a reason to berate ourselves, our friends or our family members - instead, it's an opportunity to get help and support earlier, rather than later.
Firstly, it's often more difficult to love a baby if you didn't want it in the first place. Unwanted and/or unexpected pregnancies can place additional emotional strain on any mother, and particularly on teenage parents. Most mums find that they grow to love their baby despite this, but some require support to do so. Fearing that you won't love your baby is not a good reason to consider a termination; however, it is a good reason to get support.
Sudden separation of a baby from its parents, such as in situations where the mother or baby is seriously ill for an extended period of time, can also make forming attachments more challenging. Many hospitals are making changes, but it's still very common for parents of babies in intensive care units to not be provided with sleeping facilities. If baby is in hospital for weeks or months, and parents are only able to be with the child for periods of time (and are often under a great deal of emotional stress), this can make it difficult to form and maintain a secure attachment.
Pre- or post-natal depression is also a risk factor for poor attachment. Depression, and other emotional and mental illnesses, such as anxiety disorders, can be very debilitating. It's very difficult to care for and love an infant when you're struggling to manage yourself. Reassuringly, most areas of New Zealand have a Maternal Mental Health service, which is staffed by psychologists, therapists, psychiatrists and Karitane nurses, who are specialists at assisting mums to maintain good attachment with their babies.
Other risk factors include heavy drug or alcohol use during pregnancy or in the early months. Substances like these can impair a mother's responsiveness to her baby, and can contribute to added fatigue and other physical symptoms. Mothers who were physically, sexually, or emotionally abused as children may also struggle when parenting their own children. The baby may inadvertently remind the mother of traumatic experiences, or the mother may feel a sense of numbness if her own difficulties haven't been resolved.
This is an overall approach to parenting which was coined by well-known American Paediatrician Dr William Sears. This approach, which Dr Sears points out is instinctive for most parents, is promoted to "bring out the best in the baby and the best in the parents" (see www.askdrsears.com for more information). It involves seven "tools":
☙ Birth bonding: Making the most of the early weeks when baby is most needy, and mum is most primed to provide nurturing.
☙ Breastfeeding: Dr Sears describes this as "an exercise in baby reading", or a time when mother and baby become more attuned to one another.
☙ Babywearing: The notion that carrying baby close, in a sling for example, encourages familiarity.
☙ Bedding close to baby: Dr Sears promotes co-sleeping with your baby as a way of reconnecting busy mums with their babies at night. Importantly, several New Zealand coroners, investigating cases where babies have been inadvertently smothered by their parents while co-sleeping, have advised against this practice, especially if one or both parents smoke, or have consumed alcohol or drugs, which may reduce their sensitivity to the presence of a baby in the bed.
☙ Belief in the language value of your baby's cry: The idea that a baby's cry is a signal, that has meaning, and ought not be ignored. Dr Sears advises that "tiny babies cry to communicate, not to manipulate", and suggests that responding sensitively to your baby's cry builds their trust in you.
☙ Beware of baby trainers: Attachment parenting cautions against parenting styles that involve rigid routines and "clock-watching". They suggest that, while these approaches might offer short-term benefits, the longer-term consequence can be distance (rather than closeness) between mother and child.
☙ Balance: Having the wisdom and ability to prioritise yourself and your adult relationships when appropriate.
Critics of attachment parenting have suggested that the approach is somewhat alternative. The idea of breastfeeding on demand, or sharing a bed with your baby, can seem foreign to parents accustomed to a culture of three hourly feeding and allowing babies to "cry it out". The basic ideas behind this approach have a huge amount of merit, however, and are worth looking at. It may be that you choose to incorporate only one or two ideas - in fact, Dr Sears suggests that "you can pick and choose which of [the tools] fit your personal parent-child relationship".
Thankfully, the theory behind building good, secure attachment relationships is simple. In general, aim to be responsive, rather than oblivious; attentive, rather than distracted, and interested rather than disinterested. Studies have shown that sensitivity (the ability to recognise a baby's signals accurately and respond appropriately) is a better predictor of a good attachment relationship than how quickly or how often we respond (De Wolff and van IJzendoorn, 1997). So, it's not necessarily about how fast you rush to pick up your baby when they cry - it's about what you do when you get there. As Dr Sears pointed out, thankfully most of the "what to do" is instinctive - when a baby cries, especially in the early days, mums have an almost internal motivation to go to their baby and pick them up. As babies age, their needs change. Our response to a one-year-old grizzling is likely to be different to a one-week-old wailing.
Of course there will be days when we don't feel like being responsive, attentive and interested. On those days, oblivion and/or a cup of tea can appeal far more. Rest assured that, if these days are in the minority, your bond with your baby is unlikely to be affected. They're unlikely to need a therapist at 10 years old to work through their feelings of being unloved. If these days are occurring often, don't panic! Instead, seek support from family, friends, and perhaps your family doctor. As mums and dads, let's give ourselves permission to do what comes naturally, and what feels right, rather than what the latest "baby taming" book recommends.
Dr Melanie Woodfield is a clinical psychologist in Auckland.
AS FEATURED IN ISSUE 10 OF OHbaby! MAGAZINE. CHECK OUT OTHER ARTICLES IN THIS ISSUE BELOW