Parenting in today’s world can often be hard work, but when a mother and baby are ‘securely bonded’ from the beginning, both of them have inner resources that make it easier for them to work through any problems that may arise later. By now we are all familiar with the importance of keeping mother and baby together during the first hour or two after birth. After a natural, undisturbed birth, both mother and baby are flooded with the hormone oxytocin, or the love hormone, which makes them fall in love with each other.But is that all there is to bonding? Apparently not — it seems nature has provided many ways of ensuring that a secure attachment can happen in the early days of life, and giving babies the best possible start to life.
“Babies are sentient, sensitive beings capable of learning, remembering and communicating before, during and after birth”, says perinatal psychologist, Dr Carrie Contey. Every experience in the first months of the baby’s life is imprinted on her rapidly developing brain and will lay down life-long neural pathways, determining whether she will have negative or positive feelings about herself and how she will respond to different situations in adulthood.
The baby’s brain is a bio-social organ, which means it can develop physically only as she interacts with loving people. If those interactions in the first year are happy ones, pathways that will make babies into happy adults become hard wired in the brain. Research also shows that unborn babies know, relate to and communicate with their mothers. They also recognise their father (and other significant people in the mother’s life) by their voices at birth. So the way that parents relate to the unborn baby – and to one another – during the pregnancy, is very important too, and will determine how the baby’s growing brain develops.
Communicating before birth
Mothers and fathers can communicate their love, and soothe their unborn babies by gently massaging the mother’s abdomen, and talking or singing to the baby. Unborn babies respond to these communications from their parents with increased movement. When mothers speak to them warmly and use repetitive words and sentences, baby will remember and respond positively to these words after birth.
The hour after birth
It is in the interests of the baby’s survival to build a strong attachment with her mother, especially from the moment of birth. Although they don’t yet have verbal language, babies have very clear ways of communicating, including body language, sounds and crying. So they can tell us how they feel and what they need. They also have special ways of responding and communicating with us that will help us fall in love with them.
In the first hour of life, a healthy baby is in the ‘quiet-alert’ state, which is the ideal state for communicating and interacting with her parents. Parents are also very receptive to their babies in the first hour so it’s an ideal time for them to be kept together and have private, uninterrupted time to get to know each other and strengthen the bond between them. (Hospital routines can be delayed or done with the baby in the mother’s arms if they are absolutely necessary).
What babies need
A baby is born expecting familiar people to be waiting for her when she arrives. She also expects to be kept in contact with her mother’s body, and if she is removed, she will cry to bring her mother back. As soon as the baby is over the shock of being born and is breathing well she will start to search for her mother’s eyes and both parents instinctively hold their babies in the ‘en face’ position that makes eye-contact possible. The baby can focus clearly for about 30-cm, so she can gaze into her parents’ eyes when held in their arms.
Parents are often surprised to see how quiet the baby becomes if she is placed on the mother’s body, says paediatrician Dr Marshall Klaus. Crying is an expression of babies’ distress if separated from their mother. When they are warm and safe on her chest, they are alert but peaceful. Mothers instinctively stroke their babies gently with their fingers and speak to them in a quiet, high-pitched voice. Eye contact deepens bonding and this simple interaction is necessary to ‘turn on’ the baby’s brain for further learning.
What babies can do
Newborns are not helpless if they are kept in their right habitat. They know exactly what they need and just how to get it! Placed skin-to-skin on the mother’s body, a healthy, undrugged newborn will use her legs to push herself up to the mother’s breasts. Guided by her sense of smell, she will locate the breast, and bobbing her head and using her hand to help her, find the nipple and latch on without any assistance.
Babies also sleep a lot, but when newborns are awake, they soon begin to communicate with us. They can imitate facial expressions, and will copy an adult sticking out their tongue, widening their eyes, or opening their mouth. By looking into our eyes and copying our facial expressions, babies are ‘engaging in a conversation’. They also understand the tone of our voice. So it’s important that we speak to them in a loving way. These interactions are important because they reflect the essence of the baby’s true nature back to her, telling her she is loved and important to you, building her self-esteem.
The early weeks
To the uninitiated it may seem as if babies spend most of their time sleeping, crying or feeding. Closer investigation shows that their behaviour isn’t random, but highly organised and purposeful, and that they can be in any one of six different states. Learning to recognise these states can help a mother know when her baby is ready for a feed, needs sleep or wants to interact. By responding appropriately to her needs as she expresses them you are communicating to her that you love her, she is safe, and all is well in her world.
Light sleep: The first stage of sleep that a baby goes into is ‘rapid eye movement’ (REM sleep). Her eyes flutter or move below the closed lids. She may also move her body and grimace or make sucking movements with her mouth. This is very light sleep. Your baby is vulnerable to the outside world and may wake up if she is moved.
Deep Sleep: In this state your baby’s face will be relaxed and her eyelids closed. She lies still and her breathing is regular. Apart from an occasional startle she won’t move. In this state babies can be picked up without waking them.
Drowsiness: This occurs as your baby is falling asleep or waking up. She may start to move and sometimes smile, frown or purse her lips. Her eyes may seem glazed and she doesn’t focus. If she’s struggling to fall asleep, gently rocking her or putting your hand on her back may help. If she’s waking up, let her take her time.
Quiet alert: Your baby is fully awake and ready to interact. She will make eye contact with you and her eyes are clear and bright. She especially enjoys looking at her parent’s faces, being spoken to or following moving objects with her eyes. She mostly lies still and seems to be concentrating on looking or listening. When you speak to her she will make tiny movements in response to your voice. This is the best time to talk, sing or play with her. She learns about interacting with others in a loving way as you respond to what she’s communicating, and mirror back to her that you understand, enjoy and love her.
Active alert: Your baby becomes physically active in this state. She looks around and may kick her legs. Her breathing is more irregular and she may start to make small sounds. The increased activity is her way of drawing your attention to her.
Crying: This is the most highly aroused of all the states. Her face is contorted and red and she moves her arms and legs vigorously. She’s telling you that she has an unmet need – she may be hungry, uncomfortable, needing love and holding, or to release stress. If you pick her up within the first 90 seconds of starting to cry, she will probably stop, knowing you are going to respond to her needs.
- Nurturing your Child from Conception, by Thomas Verney and Pamela Weintraub (Simon and Schuster, USA, 2003)
- Your Amazing Newborn, by Marshall H Klaus and Phyllis H Klaus (Da Capo Press, USA, 1999)
- The Mind of Your Newborn Baby, by David B Chamberlain (North Atlantic Books, USA, 1998)
- The Aware Baby, by Aletha J Solter, (Shining Star Press, USA, 2001)
- If you would like more technical information on the science of bonding, watch this wonderful video: Mother-Infant Bonding & The Intelligence of the Heart by Joseph Chilton Pearce.
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Helping babies feel secure
We know from recent research that babies have more emotions than were previously understood. If the mother is constantly stressed, babies sometimes even cry before they are born (though they can’t make any sound). When she is peaceful, they may experience ‘cosmic bliss’ — floating in a warm space, surrounded by their mother’s love which they are able to feel clearly. A baby who has been through a difficult birth will come out crying with hurt and sometimes anger. Babies’ cries when separated from their mothers are referred to as ‘distress calls’ and it has been shown by studies of their hormones that newborns are stressed if they are removed from their mothers but become peaceful and contented when they are reunited with her again. Because their brains are still growing, this is the ideal time to heal any hurts that may have happened by loving them, holding them, always picking them up and listening to them when they cry (something they sometimes need to do to feel better if they are upset) and always responding to their needs.
Written by Pat Törngren © 2013