Meeting your baby for the first time can be an exciting and loving experience but that warm fairy-tale gush of pure unabated love that we’ve all been told about may not always happen like it does in the movies. And that’s ok. The idea that every single mother will feel an intense love and bond for their baby the moment they see them is an unrealistic ideal but one that can leave many mothers with feelings of guilt, sadness, and shame.
I experienced these feelings myself at the birth of my first son. Following a long and grueling labour a midwife gently placed my newborn baby on my chest and as I looked down towards him with a mixture of excitement and anticipation- I felt nothing. Well, not exactly nothing. More like confusion. He didn’t look like he belonged to me for one, he was bruised and angry from an instrumental delivery. He seemed very cross. I remember scanning his features and desperately trying to find something that I could recognise. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, but I didn’t find it. My heart sank. I had expected angels to be singing, a harp playing, a surge of pure unconditional love but it just didn’t happen. I had looked forward to this moment for so long and I had dreamed what it was going to be like. I wanted to cry and felt a knot in my stomach. What was wrong with me? For the first few weeks of my son’s life, I took care of his physical needs, but I didn’t feel that magical bond of affection towards him like I had wanted and expected.
Thankfully, the love for my baby grew gradually over our first few weeks and months together becoming fiercer and stronger as time passed but I still felt guilty about my lack of ‘pure love’ at his birth and unable to talk to other mothers (or even my partner) about it because of my feelings of shame. I felt that there was something wrong with me and that I was the only mother in my group to feel this way.
I wish I had known what I know now; that many, many women do not experience an intense rush of love towards their baby at birth. It is estimated that 30% of all new mothers feel like I did. And it’s ok. Just like every other love relationship you might have in your life, for some mothers it is a simple case of ‘love at first sight’ while for other’s it’s more of a slow burn. Both ‘types’ of love are perfectly ‘normal’, and mothers shouldn’t feel shame if they are in the latter group.
What is more important is that mothers do eventually develop a love relationship with their infant as their baby relies on this for their survival and some new mothers may need help with this.
It's my own experience and practice that there can be many reasons for why a mother might not experience love at first sight with her baby; a long or traumatic birth, an unplanned pregnancy, a previous trauma or loss (including the previous loss of a baby), having a baby with additional needs or a highly sensitive baby who requires lots of holding and calming can all impact upon a mothers ability to bond with her baby at birth. All new mothers and babies need support but some mothers may need just a little bit more in helping them 'fall in love' with their baby. Thankfully there are also lots of simple, practical ways to help strengthen the mother- baby bond.
My top three suggestions are:
Mothers need mothering!
This sounds very obvious and simple but new mothers really do need mothering. Pregnancy, labour and birth can deplete a woman's reserve and leave her feeling emotionally and physically exhausted. Anything that immediate family and friends can do to take off her usual load including cooking, cleaning or laundry will enable a new mother to spend time getting to know her baby and to rest and recuperate her strength.
Skin to skin
Skin to skin contact is the holy grail of activities to try for any new parent and their baby and will increase the connection and bond that a mother and her baby share.
Skin to skin contact essentially involves placing a baby undressed (with or without a nappy) onto mum's bare chest and both covered with a warm blanket. There are so many benefits to this practice for both a baby and their mother.
For babies’ skin to skin contact will:
help a baby stay warm (temperature regulation)
regulate their heart rate and breathing rate
help keep their blood sugars stable
solve breastfeeding problems
calm and relax distressed or overwhelmed babies.
Skin to skin contact is literally magical for kick starting the loving bond and attachment between a mother and her baby. When a baby is placed onto their mother a rush of a powerful hormone called oxytocin is released. Oxytocin, often referred to as the love hormone or bonding hormone is important throughout pregnancy and birth (it is responsible for contractions during labour and the let -down reflex of breastmilk) but it is critical for how a mother will bond with her baby after delivery. Sometimes, a long or traumatic labour and birth can interfere with the release of oxytocin and skin to skin contact will help.
Studies have shown us that mothers with higher levels of oxytocin are more likely to engage in affectionate and nurturing mothering, have trust in their ability to parent and are less stressed and anxious in caring for their baby.
It is recommended that skin to skin contact takes place between a mother and her baby immediately following delivery for at least an hour (but don't worry if this can't happen). A mother can try it for as often and for as long as it feels right throughout the early days weeks and even months.
Another simple but powerful activity that I recommend is infant massage:
Infant massage can be a beautiful bonding experience and essentially involves a caregiver using very soothing, loving and rhythmic strokes on each area of the baby's body in turn. Massage is on