There is a lot of research that examines the relationship between newborns and parents. Most of the more recent research builds on the widely accepted concept that a parent’s emotional involvement with their baby influences their parenting. The question is whether you can bond with your baby during pregnancy and get a head start on building that connection early. Every parent experiences pregnancy differently and how you feel about your baby right now is okay and normal. This article examines the research on bonding with your baby during pregnancy and tips on how you and your partner can start building a connection with your baby now.
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Bonding and Attachment from an Evolutionary Perspective
To start, it is worth looking at how a bond between a newborn and mother was necessary for survival throughout human evolution. Humans take longer than any other animal to be able to survive on their own. As a result, the process of giving birth is designed to help a mother and baby bond from the start. All of the hormones you are going through during birth also transfer to your baby. There is a symphony of hormones that work together for birth and also affect bonding. The main hormones that affect bonding are the catecholamines (adrenaline or epinephrine and noradrenaline or norepinephrine), oxytocin, and prolactin.
Oxytocin is the hormone responsible for your contractions throughout labor. In the second stage of labor, catecholamines are secreted from your adrenal glands in response to stresses. Right before your baby is born there is a sudden increase in catecholamines, especially noradrenaline. These hormones will make you and your baby alert for their first contact with you. After your baby is born, your levels of catecholamines drop sharply which will help your body release more oxytocin. Immediately following birth, both you and your baby are going to have high levels of oxytocin and this is going to help promote bonding.
One of the first things that happen naturally after birth is that your baby instinctively wants to latch on to breastfeed. If a newborn is placed on your abdomen after birth they will actually use all of their senses; sight, touch, taste, smell, and sound to instinctively crawl up to your breast and latch on. Babies come prewired to breastfeed and hormones have a lot to do with the process of your body producing milk and the breastfeeding relationship. The hormone most associated with breastfeeding is prolactin, and it is also known as the mothering hormone. Throughout your pregnancy, you be producing higher than normal levels of prolactin but the production of milk is inhibited until the third stage of labor when you birth the placenta. Your level of prolactin decreases during labor, increases at the end of your labor then peaks at birth. This hormone is going to help with breastfeeding, not just by physically helping you to produce milk. Prolactin also fosters nurturance from you to your baby and that will overall help your breastfeeding relationship. Another factor that will help to breastfeed is a peak in your levels of beta-endorphin about 20 minutes after birth, this also ends up in your breastmilk and fosters some dependency between you and your baby. Oxytocin also plays a part to help promote the let-down reflex, which is the reflex that causes milk, or initially colostrum, to be released, and this is going to help signal your body to produce milk.
Evolution has shaped this process. It is not a coincidence that hormones are secreted at high levels when they are. The entire system is designed to get you and your baby to bond immediately. From an evolutionary perspective, this gives you incentive to care for your baby.
The Evidence on Bonding with Your Baby
While hormones influence our emotional states there is more to bonding with your child than the birthing process. There is a fair amount of research going back decades that examines the relationship between newborns and parents. Most of the more recent research builds on the widely accepted concept that a parent’s emotional involvement with their baby influences their parenting. Seems obvious enough. The question is whether you can bond with your baby during pregnancy and get a head start on building that connection between you and your baby or your partner and your baby early.
Maternal Fetal Attachment
Maternal Fetal Attachment is a term that describes the relationship between a pregnant woman and her baby. This idea is primarily based on cognitive representations of the baby. This could include imagining scenarios of you and your baby in the future and thinking about the physical and emotional characteristics of your baby. Maternal fetal attachment is associated with taking care of your health during pregnancy, comforting your baby by doing things like stroking your belly, and physically preparing for the arrival of a new baby by doing things like buying baby clothes.
Maternal fetal attachment is rated on a broad spectrum. The frequency and intensity of attachment behaviors increase as your pregnancy progresses, especially after you can feel your baby moving. Some other factors that influence maternal fetal attachment are pregnancy planning, your relationship, how far along you are in your pregnancy, and your mood. Social support and perceived support of prenatal care providers is also correlated.
How You Feel About Your Baby is Normal
It is important to know that however you feel about your baby right now is okay and normal. From a research perspective, there are several different questionnaires used to measure maternal fetal attachment. While these all differ, there are some key things these questionnaires cover. They measure the tendency of the expectant mother to interact with and ascribe intentions to the baby. They measure how you differentiate between yourself and your baby. The questionnaires also ask about the presence of positive thoughts and feelings. To very broadly sum up the idea of maternal fetal attachment, the more connected to your baby you are during pregnancy, the more connected you will be as a parent.
The Evidence on Bonding with Your Baby
According to some research even after birth, not all parents feel strongly bonded to their babies. 65.9% of mothers and 71.6% of fathers reported a strong bond, 29.4% of mothers and 26.2% of fathers felt only moderately bonded, and 4% of mothers and 2% of fathers had poor or no bonding with their new baby. This study used a series of questionnaires to assess parents’ emotions with their infant and while most were positive emotions. 45.7% of the mothers and 41.1% of the fathers were at least a little ‘fearful’ in the presence of the infant. Even small percentages of this study sample used emotions like disappointed, resentful, and sad to describe how they felt with their baby. The point is that having a baby is an emotionally complex and long process. There is no one right way to feel about your baby and parenting is emotionally intensive and can be a rollercoaster.
A meta-analysis that was very selective about only using high-quality studies reports on 14 studies about maternal fetal attachment and has a good summary of the available evidence. The meta-analysis did find that the studies show a modest, but significant association between prenatal thoughts about your baby and parent-child interaction after birth. None of the studies, including this meta-analysis, are perfect. The research shows that prenatal thoughts and attitudes do influence your parenting. This is not a black and white scenario where if today you are not thrilled with being pregnant you are doomed to be a bad parent. The meta-analysis states that there is limited evidence that prenatal thoughts and feelings about your baby are vital for your relationship with your baby.
Why Work to Bond with Your Baby During Pregnancy?
There is no downside to fostering a positive connection to your baby during pregnancy. Provided that you are not stressed out about the methods by which you are trying to bond with your baby. Taking all of this research and evidence we have discussed into account, it would be beneficial to have a strong connection to your baby or bond with your baby while you are pregnant. If for no other reason than you will be more excited to be a parent and feel more positive about having a baby. Please keep in mind that everyone experiences pregnancy and the transition into motherhood differently and there is no one right way to do that. Let’s cover some ways in which you can bond with your baby. Not all of these may appeal to you and you may need to use some trial and error to find what is most effective for you. If you don’t enjoy these things don’t do them, the point is to find things that you enjoy that give you some space to relax and connect with your baby.
Hearing the Heartbeat and Viewing Ultrasounds
Early on in your pregnancy, it may be difficult to come to terms with the fact that you are in fact pregnant. This is especially true early on when you aren’t showing yet and you cannot feel your baby moving. Early on you should be able to hear your baby’s heartbeat. Seeing your baby on a sonogram has become a hallmark moment of pregnancy. Having some actual proof that there is a baby in your belly can give you a feeling that all of the things you are going through right now are for a very worthwhile cause. It can also be a sigh of relief that your baby is healthy and okay. For more information on ultrasounds and the evidence on 4-D ultrasounds, you can check out this episode.
Sound and Music
Your baby’s ears start developing very early on and by about week 18, they should be able to hear. This sense will continue to improve as their hearing sharpens throughout their time in your belly. By 26 weeks your baby will react to sounds, and some research points to even earlier responses. To get a better idea of what your baby can hear let’s talk about an animal study done where they implanted a recording device in the inner ear of sheep in utero. The goal of this study was that the researchers wanted to be able to know how a baby may hear in utero. They played a recording of sentences read to the sheep, and played back audio of what the sheep could hear in utero, from the recording devices in their ears. When the sound was filtered through the mothers’ tissues and fluids in the abdomen you could understand about 70% of the sentences. Only about 40% of the sentences could be repeated back when people listened to the audio that was recorded in the inner ear of the sheep. The takeaway from this study is that sound is filtered and muffled, and noise as you hear it sounds much different to your baby. Think about being underwater and hearing the sounds with your ears submerged in liquid. Sound travels much differently than it does through air.
Even though it may sound different, your baby still hears noises, music, talking, and singing. A study had half of the participants play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star five times per week in the last trimester. At birth and four months of age, the same melody was played back, with a few notes changed. The babies in the group who had heard the song in the womb had a stronger response to the unchanged notes than the babies who were not played the melody in the womb. Not only does your baby hear the music you play, but they will also remember it later.
If you enjoy singing, by all means, sing songs to your baby. If you don’t already know some lullabies now is a good time to learn some. You can always sing any song or hum a tune. Practicing this now also gives you a tool to soothe your baby later.
If you would rather not sing, you can always play some music. A small pilot study found that pregnant mothers listening to music decreased stress and anxiety. Another study found that listening to music during pregnancy is associated with higher levels of well-being and reduced symptoms of postpartum depression in the first three months after birth. Both of these studies have their limitations. You are not doomed to never bond to your baby or have postpartum depression if you aren’t a music lover. If you listen to music regularly, by all means, keep doing it. If you don’t and you can find some music you enjoy you may want to give it a try.
Another way to connect to your baby with sound is to talk to them. This may seem silly at first when you find yourself looking down at your belly and talking. Remember that around 18 weeks your baby can hear you. There is a lot of research going back decades that babies react to their mothers’ voices in the womb and that they prefer their mother’s voice over other voices. Part of the reason for this may be that your voice sounds different to your baby because the sounds are resonating through your body differently than external sounds. It will sound different for your baby to hear someone else speak where the sound is traveling to your baby through your belly.
In one study when a mother was quiet, then began reading aloud, the baby responded with an increased heart rate and movement. When the mother was having a conversation, then stopped to read aloud the babies responded by decreasing movement and their heart rate slowed down. The researchers refer to this an orienting response. This particular study was on babies who were 36 weeks, and we know that hearing improves the further along you are in your pregnancy. This is one example of the many studies showing that babies respond to their mother’s voice.
Another reason why talking to your baby can help you bond. Not only will it familiarize your baby with your voice, but it will also get you in the headspace of thinking about your baby. It makes it a little more real that you are growing a human who is an independent being from you. You can talk to your baby about anything and everything. If this feels weird at first do it when no one else is around. Talk about how you are feeling or what you are doing that day. You can tell them about their other parent, or what their nursery will be like. The content of what you are saying is less important than you speaking to your baby.
Connecting Through Touch
Around 8 weeks your baby starts developing sensitivity to touch, by 32 weeks that sense is honed in and your baby could detect a stroke of a feather. You can apply touch by gently stroking your belly or massaging your belly with light pressure. Earlier on in your pregnancy babies move away from touch and as they grow they will respond by moving toward touch. Older research on babies responding to stimuli relied on fetal heart rate monitors. Ultrasound technology has given us a better way to observe babies’ responses in the womb to stimulus. One study showed that babies responded to touch more than voice by moving their heads, arms, hands or mouth. This study compared this to the mother lying still and it was clear that babies did respond to the mother touching their belly. As your baby grows, you can feel them move more the bigger they get. Ultrasounds are great for research, and you will be able to detect movement just by feeling your baby. Don’t forget to share this with your partner and let them experience your baby moving too.
Haptonomy is a method to develop an emotional link between babies and parents before birth. It is referred to as the science of affectivity or loving touch. It was difficult to track down a detailed explanation of exactly what haptonomy is. From what I can tell this practice is usually done with a guide and in each session, you and your partner have your hands on your belly and you are feeling your baby move. There is no downside to practicing haptonomy, other than it may be challenging to find a practitioner in your area and the cost of the sessions. If this is something you would like to explore you can search for a practitioner in your area and ask them more questions about how it works and what you can expect.
Your Baby Sensing LIght
When we are talking about your baby responding to a stimulus, they also can respond to light. Your baby’s retinas are developed around 20 weeks and from about week 22 they can see light, or notice the contrast between light and dark. Maybe the next time you step out into the sunshine you can let some light hit your belly and think about enjoying a sunny day with your baby.
Anything you can do to reduce stress can positively impact you and may help you to better bond with your baby. One study investigated whether stress influences the attachment bond between a mother and her unborn baby. Like most of the research involving emotional states and mental health, the data was collected via questionnaires. The researchers found an inverse relationship between stress and maternal fetal attachment. The more stress a mother was under, the less attached she felt to her baby. This was a small study, with only 53 participants. I don’t want you to panic if you have been experiencing some stress. No one is living a completely stress-free life. Especially in 2020. Plus, pregnancy tends to be a state of high stress compared to other stages of life. There are so many unknowns, you are undergoing a lot of physical and emotional changes, and you are transitioning to a whole new level by becoming a parent. If this isn’t your first baby, it is still a big transition to become a parent of two or three or more children. Some stress isn’t a negative thing. Perhaps the stress of not knowing what to expect during pregnancy prompted you to find this podcast and get educated. What you want to avoid is the stress becoming your focus. If you are in a constant state of stress and worry it will be difficult to focus any energy on thinking positively and trying to connect with your baby.
Other methods to cope with stress are exercise, yoga, meditation. Anything that works for you to feel relaxed will benefit you and your baby. Plus, there will be some stressful times as a new mother, and having some coping mechanisms to manage your own stress will go a long way in your parenting journey.
Visualization and Day Dreaming
You have likely had some thoughts about what it would be like to experience something in the future with your baby. That could be thinking about walks in your neighborhood, celebrating baby’s first Christmas, having a picnic in the park. Thinking about the future and imagining some positive things or happy moments you will enjoy with your baby or as a family is an excellent way to bond with your baby. You can even talk to them and tell them how excited you are for them to meet their grandparents or how you can’t wait for them to see the ocean for the first time. Use your imagination and imagine all of the amazing firsts and new routines that will be in your life.
One technique you can try is to keep a journal. A lot of research on journaling or expressive writing is small short-term studies. Many are focused on a specific group of people, like those suffering from a severe depressive disorder. There isn’t a downside to trying this. If you have no idea where to start, that is okay. Let’s go through some basic Q&A on getting started.
What in the heck should you write about? The answer to this is anything and everything. You can write solely for yourself or put down some thoughts to share with your baby one day. An easy way to start is by writing about something you are grateful for. You could jot down how you are feeling, something you are looking forward to, the details of a negative experience you had that day to help yourself process it. There is no wrong answer to what you should write about.
How often should you journal? I would shoot for every day, even if you only note a few sentences on something you are grateful for and what you plan to do that day. Journaling consistently is a habit that takes time to reinforce.
Do you have to physically write in a journal? It doesn’t matter if you take a pen to paper or open an app on your phone. If you are nervous about your partner reading your journal and want to keep it private, I suggest an app with a password. I know if I had a paper journal that my husband would not be able to resist reading it. I want to be comfortable writing my thoughts without having to preface and explain and think about how they may be interpreted by someone else. The app I use is called Day One and I am sure there are other password-protected journaling apps out there.
I urge you to give journaling a shot. You may enjoy it and find it helpful, or you may procrastinate and dread doing it. If you are not into it and you are having trouble doing it maybe this isn’t for you.
Bonding with Dad, Partner, Siblings
All of the methods in this episode designed to help you bond with your baby can also be employed by your partner or other children you have. Invite them to talk to your baby or feel your belly when your baby is moving. It can be more of a challenge for other family members to feel a connection to your baby because they are not pregnant. Including them in any of these methods is a good way to start.
Talking to Your Doctor or Midwife
As always, if you have any questions or concerns about how you are feeling emotionally, please bring it up with your doctor or midwife. How you feel is normal and everyone feels differently about connecting to their baby. If you are feeling depressed or anxious and you think you need help, please talk to your doctor or midwife.
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