Think back to the last time you felt a rush of positive emotions as you snuggled up against and played with your baby. It probably wasn’t too long ago – when we touch, nuzzle and smell our little one, our bodies release the hormone oxytocin, which instantly gives us that warm, fuzzy feeling of love towards him or her. No wonder we keep coming back for more!
Bonding is a deeply primal and physiological experience. For babies, attachment happens over time, and it’s fundamentally linked to the physical and emotional contact their caregivers provide them. Caring, consistent love and interaction will over time create certain patterns of expectations in a baby’s brain.
How babies form attachments
Attachment begins within the first six weeks after birth, when your baby learns that interaction elicits pleasure or a favourable response. For instance, when mommy massages me, it feels nice; when I smile at daddy, he smiles back. This creates a pattern of expecting good things from the world.
At six weeks old, babies start reciprocal interactions that show they are connecting with someone they love. Consistency of care – in other words being present and meeting your baby’s needs – is of key importance for this attachment to develop.
Between seven and nine months, babies start to develop anxiety with regard to strangers – the fear of being left with someone other than you. This may be a trying time for both baby and parents, but their attachment to you will soon become less severe and their anxiety will be reduced as they learn that they are able to cope on their own. Developing this ability to self-soothe and manage their emotions is important, as it teaches them vital social skills.
How to bond with your baby
The good news is that bonding with your baby is not difficult. Here are four basic principles conducive to bonding:
Play with your baby. Play is how your baby learns about the world, and can involve toys, your own facial expressions, and children’s games. Peek-a-boo is an excellent example of a separation game, where babies learn that when you “disappear”, you are not gone forever. This will help them cope with being left in the care of others later on.
Touch your little one. Babies explore the world mostly through their sense of touch, and positive touch teaches them that their world is a safe place.
Language – both verbal and non-verbal – is a critical element of socialising and connecting with others. Talking to your baby, making eye contact and smiling will teach your little one to respond back with language.
Consistency is the key when it comes to helping your baby form a picture of the world. For instance, when leaving a room, consistently wave goodbye to baby with a big smile, and greet him or her cheerfully upon your return. This teaches your baby that separation is not a scary concept. As a result, your baby will become more self-contained and confident in time.
Use these four principles consistently every day to help your baby learn about the world while both of you are having fun, and to reinforce your bond daily.