By Tan Yi Lin
Have you ever pictured yourself with your newborn in the delivery suite at the hospital? Does the baby look like the perfect angel sleeping soundly in mummy’s and daddy’s arms? Are the proud new parents holding each other lovingly, beaming at the sight of their little darling?
It is a rosy picture, isn’t it?
In reality, the baby could be whisked away upon birth to be given special medical attention. Mum could be staring at a screaming baby in her arms. Dad could be feeling overwhelmed by having to care for a fragile wife and newborn. Both parents are having their hands full with their bundle of joy who constantly clamours for attention.
It is no wonder that as much as many new parents want to bond with their newborn, they might be stressed and distracted at times to fully enjoy the process. Ms Ong Li Lian, Case Manager for Mental Wellness Service at the KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital, shares some tips for parent-child bonding.
Does bonding come naturally to all parents?
Ms Ong, sheds some light. “Bonding is not exactly natural to all parents but rather it depends on several factors. These include the circumstances under which the child was conceived, the parents’ own experiences as a child and their perception of what a parent should provide.”
She adds, “It is also difficult for parents to bond with their baby if they are affected by other problems at the same time and do not have the physical and mental energy to attend to their newborn.” Such problems can vary in range and scale, from keeping the house in order, to managing financial concerns or medical problems.
Bonding occurs through everyday caregiving like breastfeeding, cuddling, massaging, singing, talking, and so on. Slow down and spend time with your baby and you will find that as time goes by, the bond between you will deepen.
What can expectant parents do during the pregnancy to prepare themselves to bond better with their baby? Can antenatal classes teach us how to bond with our newborn?
Many first-time parents-to-be choose to attend antenatal or parentcraft classes in the weeks leading up to delivery. While expectant parents may appreciate receiving new knowledge and guidance on baby care, how useful are such classes in setting the foundation for successful parent-child bonding?
Ms Ong shares, “Antenatal and parentcraft classes can be helpful especially for first-time parents to find out what to expect during the pregnancy and postnatal period, and to learn how to take care of themselves and the baby. This will reduce anxiety and stress, so that new parents would be in a better psychological state to enjoy parenthood and bond with the baby.”
What if you do not wish to or do not have the resources to attend such classes?
“Parents can also prepare themselves through reading parenthood material, talking with family and friends, and modelling other experienced parents,” offers Ms Ong.
When can the bonding process start? Does talking to my baby while he or she is still in the womb help?
It is never too early to start the bonding process, even while the child is still in-utero. Notice how expectant mothers tend to fondly rub their pregnant bellies ever so often? Responding by touch to your baby’s movements or using touch as a display of affection is a form of bonding. And it’s not just mummies who can bond through touch – dads can too, by feeling the baby through mummy’s tummy.
Some parents talk to their unborn babies or even read to them. There are even books and stories specially designed to be read to your baby in-utero. Examples of stories that parents-to-be can have fun with are: Oh Baby, The Places You’ll Go: A Book To Be Read In Utero (adapted by Tish Rabe from the works of Dr Seuss) and Ma! There’s Nothing To Do Here!: A Word From Your Baby-In-Waiting (by Barbara Park).
Ms Ong advises, “These are various forms of parent-child communication that allow the parents to feel connected to the unborn baby. In return, the baby will also be able to recognise his parents’ voices in future”.
Upon the birth of the baby, what can new parents do immediately to start forging that special bond?
There are a few ways to initiate the bonding process while both mother and baby are still in the hospital.
Holding the baby immediately after birth, while still in the delivery suite, is the very first step to getting to know your child. “It is a special moment when everything becomes real: after the months of expectation and imagining what your baby looks like, he or she finally arrives in your arms”, says Ms Ong. She encourages new parents to hold their baby close, look at their baby’s features and gently use their fingers to stroke him or her. Such tender physical contact not only helps parents to get to know their baby, but it also gently introduces the baby to his or her parents.
In some circumstances, the parents may not be handed the baby immediately after birth, for example, when a newborn baby requires special medical attention urgently. Ms Ong reassures new parents that the delayed physical contact does not mean that they will not be able to successfully bond with their child. Physical contact is only one aspect of bonding.
Depending on the choice of maternity ward, some parents may be allowed to have the baby room-in with the mother. Rooming-in allows parents to understand the baby’s needs right from the start, provides the opportunity for the baby to have regular contact with his parents and hence, establish the foundation for a good parent-child relationship. However, Ms Ong reminds new parents that the postnatal mother also needs a lot of rest to recover from the hardship of labour, so the advantages of rooming-in need to be balanced with the physical and emotional needs of the recovering mother.
Lastly, many hospitals recommend skin-to-skin contact with the baby where possible. Close physical contact with the mother can have a calming effect on the baby. The newborn will also be close to the sound he or she is most familiar with while in the womb – his mother’s heartbeat. Skin-to-skin contact also facilitates breastfeeding as many newborns instinctively try to latch onto their mother’s breast when placed onto her chest. Breastfeeding in itself is also a very effective way of bonding with your baby.
I can’t even cope with the household chores now that the baby has arrived. How do I manage caring for a newborn and yet still have the time and energy to bond with my child?
“The postnatal period is a period of adjustment for everyone in the family as they try to fit a newborn into their life. Or rather, it can be a case of fitting everything else around the baby!” observes Ms Ong. She encourages new parents to request for and accept as much help as possible from family members and friends, who can help out with grocery shopping, household chores or attending to the baby’s needs. This will alleviate stress on mum and dad, and allow them more time and energy with their newborn. However, she recognises that not all couples are fortunate to have help readily available when they need it, so it is important to identify and prioritize what could realistically be done within a day.
Why don’t I feel joyful and loving towards my baby all the time? Is something wrong? Am I having problems bonding with her?
“Caring for a baby can be stressful and exhausting at times”, recognises Ms Ong. “Mothers caring for their baby at home may feel alone and isolated.” Don’t worry – it is natural for new parents to feel helpless and inadequate when learning how to care and provide for a demanding newborn. Ms Ong encourages new mothers to talk to other mothers. They may realise that they are not the only ones experiencing such negative feelings, and such feelings are definitely not an indication of poor parenting. “The reality is that parenting is not joyful all the time,” reminds Ms Ong. “Accepting the frustrations as part and parcel of parenthood, and redirecting the focus to the memorable moments may help new parents cope better and enhance the parent-child bond.”
However, if the mother is persistently feeling moody and encountering difficulty bonding with her baby, Ms Ong advises the couple to seek professional help from a doctor, counseller or psychologist. These experts can help the mother work through her feelings and suggest ways to improve the bond between parent and child.
Remember, the process of bonding with your newborn takes time and dedication. It is work in progress and new parents should allow themselves the space and time to get to know their baby. Very soon, you will be rewarded with the first toothless smile that will make your efforts worth the while.
I Love Children would like to thank Ms Ong Li Lian, Case Manager for Mental Wellness Service at the KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital for her valuable inputs.