Bonding With a Baby: Stay Calm When It Comes Slowly
We all think we'll fall right in love with a new baby - but what if it takes a while?
‘Would I jump in front of a bus for her yet?’
I sat bleary eyed in the living room. The question nagged me.
Yet another night brought yet another battle trying to get my infant daughter to sleep. At one point I’d jostled little Sprocket just so for an hour — not just side to side, that doesn’t do it you see, it has to be up and down too — and finally gotten her to sleep. I very carefully, an inch at a time, lowered her into the bassinet, carefully extracted my arm, and with joy looked at my sleeping daughter.
I did it. At long last, I did it. I finally got her to —
From out of nowhere, Sprocket flung her arm up in her sleep and slapped herself in the face. Her eyes flew open, looking at me with shocked confusion as she wondered why I would slap her in the face. She paused long enough to fill her lungs, and then let out a wailing cry.
And I started all over again.
The next morning, nursing my coffee in the living room, I felt numb. The dullness of exhaustion plagued me, and now a new worry heaped on top: I was struggling with my feelings for Sprocket. I wasn’t overcome with goochie-goos and glittery affection. I didn’t resent my daughter…but I wasn’t exactly a wellspring of adoration either.
But she was my daughter — why wouldn’t that be there? We tried for almost two years to get pregnant…why wasn’t I instantly bonding with the baby? Why wasn’t I overcome with tenderness? I mean, I loved her, but the liking was a bit of an issue. I felt like I’d ultimately go ahead with slinging myself in front of public transport for her sake, but man oh MAN would I have had some feelings about it.
Babies are supposed to be cute and cuddly and lovable. Sometimes, though – and especially early on – that’s beyond difficult to see, especially for new fathers. Why? The easy answers relate to sleep deprivation and establishing new paradigms, but looking back on my experience, there are a few other angles to it.
Here are some things to bear in mind as you work on bonding with a baby:
You’ll wonder when they’re screeching like a demon, but your baby is a human being, and human relationships take time.
I didn’t move in with my wife the day I met her; we needed time for that level of intimacy to blossom. And my best friend in high school wasn’t my best friend within ten minutes of meeting him. In fact, I kinda hated him for a few months. It took shared experience and developed trust (and Mom forcing me to invite him to my birthday party, but that’s another story) for that dynamic to unfurl.
So why should you expect anything different in bonding with a baby you’ve only just met? At base, they’re simply another human you’re meeting for the first time. And sure, sometimes people fall in love at first sight. But not often. So it’s normal that you might take a while to warm up.
In my case, I didn’t really know anything about Sprocket. Having known of her for these months didn’t mean anything more for the state of our relationship than it would if I knew of an adult but hadn’t met them yet. I needed to be patient. My investments in this relationship wound up paying off like any other.
Bonding with a baby is hard, because babies are lumps.
Don’t get me wrong, your baby is beautiful and perfect, a sterling advertisement for the strength of your genes. But make no mistake, they will for some period of time be an utter lump. An emotional black hole, demanding and taking and nagging and taking, only taking, taking any emotional light and energy and giving you nothing in return. No smiles, no giggles, no meaningful eye contact.
Newborns are unfathomable chasms of need.
This is nobody’s fault. Not your newborn’s fault for not doing it – they’re simply incapable. Nor is it your fault for being drained by it. It’s just what is. Bonding with a baby will take time as he or she gradually engages with you more and more. In the meantime, don’t take it personally, because your baby may understand more than you think. Research is starting to show that very young babies can sense and be affected by a parent’s mood. The more you let things roll off of you, the less you’ll perpetuate a stress cycle in your relationship.
Bottom line: You won’t get an emotional return on investment for some time with a new baby. So steel yourself from the outset.
Comparison will be the thief of your joy.
Other parents can make it unintentionally difficult for you to come to terms with tepid feelings about your baby. Nobody gets on Facebook or Instagram and posts a picture of their screaming baby at two in the morning, or – perish the thought – talks about their difficulty bonding with a baby.
No, a flick through your feed is going to reveal starry eyed shots, cheek to cheek candids, and gauzy black and white pictures of morning cuddles. Lots of flowy white dresses. Lots of bare feet nestled together on freshly laundered sheets. Lots of happy pappies who look like they’ve got their households under control.
Meanwhile, you’re researching caffeine overdose thresholds after two and a half hours of sleep, blearily making breakfast for your beloved because she got one and a half, and that blasted baby is crying. Again.
You look down and realize you’ve been using a dirty bowl for the pancake mix. You look over your shoulder, debating the morality. Sweet and sour chicken would probably be an acceptable undertone, right?
I mean, I get it. I did it too. (Not the sweet and sour pancakes, the picture posting stuff.) I wasn’t in the habit of posting pictures that made my baby look like a dud. But taking in the parental zeitgeist on social media will suggest to you as a new parent that you’re utterly failing if you don’t look and feel like all those people all the time.
But you’re not. If your baby is safe, healthy, warm, and has a full belly, you’re doing phenomenally. Remember, behind those filters and between the shutter sounds of those photos you’re looking at, there are poopsplosions and frustration and hyperventilating cries (hopefully just from the baby).
You’re not broken, and you’re not alone.
Give yourself permission to be complicated.
We never fit in any single emotional box as human beings. You can be simultaneously grateful for your baby and irritated by them just as easily as you can be happy overall in life yet also hungry in a given moment. Not everything has to be labeled and categorized, and emotions aren’t mutually exclusive.
You’re allowed to have a swirl of both positive and negative emotions as a new parent. You need to assess and process them somewhat to make sense of them, but you shouldn’t add guilt on top of them. It’s better to let them flow, think them through and talk them out with your partner or someone else you trust. They’re utterly natural. It’s not wrong to feel a particular way so long as you process those feelings in such a way that tempers your response to them.
Partners can progress at different rates in bonding with a baby.
My wife and I have, at various points, suspected our daughter loves the other parent more. There have been plenty of times when I’ve felt dulled as my wife and Sprocket have seemed to sparkle with one another. Meanwhile, for my wife, working outside the home while I’m a stay-at-home dad has sometimes made her feel she’s missing opportunities to connect. Each of us have watched while the other has seemed better connected while we were still numb. What could have been multiple seasons of confusion and frustration, though, were just passing phases – because we saw them as such and kept lines of communication open between us.
Outsiders can, hopefully unintentionally, add more shame.
I’ve heard new parents struggling bonding with a baby express regret about being open with their struggles, because they had it suggested to them that they just had low energy and couldn’t deal. ‘Just sleep when the baby sleeps and you’ll be fine!’
Gee golly, why didn’t I think of that? Why maintain the household properly when you can just, you know, sleep instead? Genius!
Some mothers have had it suggested to them they could have bonded better if they’d just skipped the epidural. Some fathers have been told if they’d just held the baby more in the first few days their bond would be better. Nonsense. But even if you know that, hearing it is enough to reinforce an inner suspicion that you’re not normal.
You are. I was. It can take time for baby bonding to happen. You’re okay.
There are things you can do to aid the process of bonding with a baby as a father.
Mom has a jump start on the bonding process in many ways, from all of the hormonal processes in childbirth to in-built extended skin to skin contact time if she’s breastfeeding. That doesn’t mean you need to be left in the cold as a dad, though. Consider focusing on ways you can help foster a deeper connection:
Help with Feeding.
Even if Mom is breastfeeding, there are still ways to make your presence felt. That might mean, given your partner is comfortable with it, occasionally being immediately present for a feeding, talking to your baby and giving gentle touches and strokes as you talk to them. Or it might mean keeping pumped milk or formula ready so you can give a full feed yourself. Consider doffing your shirt if you’re at home and maximizing the skin to skin contact with your baby – he or she will quickly come to learn the differences in your respective touches as parents.
Read and sing to your baby.
Research has shown time and again the benefits of reading to children, even starting in utero. And don’t overthink the singing business. I can’t sing, and could probably write what I know about music theory on a playing card (and not even an ace, I don’t need that much white space).
But I beamed seeing Sprocket’s joy at listening to songs I made up, from Butter Your Bum Bum, to Coffee Coffee Coffee (It’s Not for Babies), to Fluffy Fluffy Doggie (Only Pet, Only Pet). There have been dozens of them, each stupider than the last. (I’ve sadly gotten word neither Fight for Your Right to Potty nor Nice Nice Baby are up for Grammy consideration this year). Yet they helped us bond, and Sprocket now sings some of the classics back to me.
Don’t pass on bath time.
Hopefully baths are a happy element of your baby’s day – after all, a warm, aqueous environment is the only thing they have any extended familiarity with – so capitalize on involving yourself in the process. Use the opportunity to touch and talk and make meaningful eye contact with your baby.
Let Baby explore your face.
If you have a female partner, it’s highly likely your face is more varied and textured than hers is. Embrace the difference and let your baby explore and learn. Your baby is a sponge for novel experiences, and you should oblige them in whatever ways you can. You don’t need to run to Pinterest for texture board activities – just let them paw your face. You’re probably a day or three unshaven anyway, so use it as a teaching tool.
Mimic your baby.
Movement and cooing are the only way your baby can communicate, so meet them in the middle by mimicking them. Crying is one of their languages, but in peacetime cooing and movement are their dialects of choice. Stuff your ego, be willing to look silly and engage with them; it’ll be essential throughout life, so embrace it now.
Your baby won’t appreciate everything going into what you’re doing, of course, but making the same sounds and movements will begin to establish the fact you’re listening to them and want to meaningfully communicate. Imagine the relief if you were in a foreign country where everything was new to suddenly hear someone speak to you in your own language!
Sprocket, as kids tend to do, progressed rapidly. It won’t be long before she’s in school and picking locks and hotwiring my truck and…well, school for sure.
And our bond kept, and keeps, growing. And there was no epiphany for me, no one moment when the stars fell out of the sky onto us. She’s just a cool human being that I’m getting to know better every day and falling in love with more as a result.
One I’d jump in front of a comet for now.
About the Creator
R. Justin Freeman
Rambler slowing so my kids can start rambling. Done everything from cattle ranching to law enforcement, clergy work to retail, writing to living in Canada's far north. I try to let all of it inform my writing, but current focus is SaHDs.
Living as a parent, but you got to do it your way.
So vulnerable. I love it.
I’m the primary care giver for my kids and a lot of what you wrote resonated with me. With second and third kids especially, I didn’t really love them until they passed their smile mile stones and started to develop their personalities. Seeing them as little people made the difference. Up till then I couldn’t see anything other than a loud, fleshy thing that cries and poops and needs stuff non stop. Babies are just annoying things. But once they started developing into people that can think I found myself able to love them. Also, male post partum depression is definitely a thing, and lots of parents don’t even know it exists or can affect men.
Well written and good advice
Difficult topic, handled very well. Loved the “infants are in fathomable chasms of need” reference. So bang-on!
Yes, yes, yes, 1000 times YES. This needs to be said. Even as a mother, bonding was not instant with a baby who screamed 23 1/2 hours a day. I guess exhaustion from all that screaming forced him into a 30 minute daily nap. I really liked the way you made analogies between falling in love with your wife and making friends taking time, so why shouldn't it be the same with a baby, who is basically a stranger to you? This was an excellent article that every new parent should read. Bonding comes, but it does take time. I wish I had known that all those decades ago.
Barely joined the app a while ago and yours is my first real read. H Gotta say that I really enjoyed your words... it was a tug and pull into parenthood worries. I have no children yet and am planning on trying in the next year or so... and this was a real eye opener to say the least. Thank you for posting and saying what few do...
I don’t have any children yet maybe in the next few years. But this was informative and it was interesting to read about your personal experience with your new role in fatherhood. You didn’t sugar coat it and you brought into the reality that social media is not reality. It’s only a snapshot in time. Thank you for your vulnerability
Your baby needs music. I suggest "Snow Flakes Are Dancing" and Pictures at an Exhibition, by Isao Tomita, the 2nd side of "Initiation", by Todd Rundgren, "Soothing Sounds for Baby" by Raymond Scott and other such things. Put the speakers close to the crib and play the music at a low volume.