The researchers speculated that for humans, just as for other types of animals, there is a “sensitive period” at birth when mothers and newborns are uniquely programmed to be in contact with each other and do good things to each other.
Bonding is really a continuation of the relationship that began during pregnancy. The physical and chemical changes that were occurring in your body reminded you of the presence of this person. Birth cements this bond and gives it reality. Now you can see, feel, and talk to the little person whom you knew only as the “bulge” or from the movements and the heartbeat you heard through medical instruments. Bonding allows you to transfer your life-giving love for the infant inside to caregiving love on the outside. Inside, you gave your blood; outside, you give your milk, eyes, hands, and voice–your entire self.
Bonding brings mothers and newborns back together. Bonding studies provided the catalyst for family-oriented birthing policies in hospitals. It brought babies out of nurseries to room-in with their mothers. Bonding research reaffirmed the importance of the mother as the newborn’s primary caregiver.
Bonding is not a now-or-never phenomenon. Bonding during this biologically sensitive period gives the parent-infant relationship a head start. However, immediate bonding after birth is not like instant glue that cements a parent-child relationship forever. The overselling of bonding has caused needless guilt for mothers who, because of medical complication, were temporarily separated from their babies after birth. Epidemics of bonding blues have occurred in mothers who had cesarean births or who had premature babies in intensive care units.
What about the baby who for some reason, such as prematurity or cesarean birth, is temporarily separated form his mother after birth? Is the baby permanently affected by the loss of this early contact period? Catch-up bonding is certainly possible, especially in the resilient human species. The conception of bonding as an absolute critical period or a now-or-never relationship is not true. From birth through infancy and childhood there are many steps that lead to a strong mother-infant attachment. As soon as mothers and babies are reunited, creating a strong mother-infant connection by practicing the attachment style of parenting can compensate for the loss of this early opportunity. We have seen adopting parents who, upon first contact with their one-week-old newborn, express feeling as deep and caring as those of biological parents in the delivery room.
Most of the bonding research has focused on mother-infant bonding, with the father given only honorable mention. In recent years fathers, too, have been the subject of bonding research and have even merited a special term for the father-infant relationship at birth–”engrossment.” We used to talk about father involvement; now it’s father engrossment–meaning involvement to a higher degree. Engrossment is not only what the father does for the baby–holding and comforting– but also what the baby does for the father. Bonding with baby right after birth brings out sensitivity in dad.
Fathers are often portrayed as well meaning, but bumbling, when caring for newborns. Fathers are sometimes considered secondhand nurturers, nurturing the mother as she nurtures the baby. That’s only half the story. Fathers have their own unique way of relating to babies, and babies thrive on this difference.
In fact, studies on father bonding show that fathers who are given the opportunity and are encouraged to take an active part in caring for their newborns can become just as nurturing as mothers. A father’s nurturing responses may be less automatic and slower to unfold than a mother’s, but fathers are capable of a strong bonding attachment to their infants during the newborn period.
By, Dr. Mehta