04 Apr Love them to pieces: mother-baby bonding, what it is good for and how to promote it
We’ve all heard the term mother-infant bonding and have learned that it was very, very important. We’ve also come to know that skin- to-skin time immediately after birth fosters that bonding. But did you know that a strong mother-baby bond can help in preventing disease in infancy AND adulthood and increase IQ scores? Yep, the emotional bond in and of itself can do that and more!
Numerous studies have shown significant links between a strong maternal-infant bond and baby physical and emotional health. For example, it turns out, that cuddling can activate the immune system to fight against disease. Also, whether a mom breastfeeds or bottle-feeds, just holding her baby and looking at her activates certain areas in the brain and stimulates the production of the “love hormone” Oxytocin, which, in turn, fosters bonding.
A strong mother-baby bond has been found to positively affect the mother’s well-being as well. Furthermore, adults who have enjoyed a secure and strong bond, or attachment, tend to thrive and be well-adjusted in society. Hence a strong maternal-infant bond is extremely beneficial to all over the life-span.
So how does this miracle happen and how can we foster it? In other words, how can we help mothers to engage more in bonding promoting behaviors?
The short and simple answer to these questions is quite simple; we can and should support new mothers; because, when a mother is feeling consistently and strongly supported, she is more likely to engage in bond-enhancing behaviors!
Here are 7 tips on how to do just that.
- Encourage mothers to self-care. Starting in pregnancy, a woman should be encouraged to exercise, rest, eat healthfully, engage in pleasurable activities and have time to herself. Educating a new mother on the importance of self-care and helping her to come up with a self-care plan, can be very helpful. Often, new mothers believe that taking care of themselves is selfish. Explaining to them the reasons why self-care is the responsible thing to do and the ways self-care might benefit their baby can help change their attitude and foster self-care behaviour.
- Offer praise and words of encouragement. If people could be less judgmental and critical and focus more on the positive, it could go a long way in helping new mothers. Often times, new mothers are overwhelmed and doubt themselves. When people around them focus on the things they’re doing right or offer a positive observation about the baby, it could help boost the mother’s confidence. I once said to a new mother that her baby seemed happy and well- taken care of. The mother was very moved and said that this was the nicest thing someone has said to her in a long time. She added ” I needed to hear that!” Be sure to only offer genuine praise, though.
- Encourage and help a mother to reduce stress. Stress is a part of everyone’s life but high levels of stress can compromise the emotional and physical health of a mother and her baby. There are many ways to reduce stress. For example, regular exercise, yoga, mindfulness, Ecotherapy ( for a review on Ecotherapy see my January blog) and learning to self-talk in a kind and fair way (often taught as part of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy). Whatever you do, try to avoid adding stress for a new mom.
- Encourage and support breastfeeding. We all know that breastfeeding promotes mom and baby’s health and foster their bond. However, breastfeeding doesn’t always come easy or intuitively. New mothers need to know that they are not the only ones experiencing difficulties in that area, if they do. For many mothers and babies, establishing breastfeeding takes time, guidance and practice. If a woman can’t or won’t breastfeed, offer her support anyway. Chances are she is aware of the importance of breastfeeding but if, for some reason, she decided not to, she needs to be supported and never criticized, shamed or judged. She can still be a good mother and her baby can thrive, if she is well supported.
- Encourage mothers to engage in social activities. Social isolation has been linked to poor mental health. On the other hand, moms who get together tend to fare better, feel more supported and maintain better mental health. Mom and baby groups are offered at community centres. Often mothers who attended the same prenatal class keep meeting after babies are born. To read more about the benefits of social interaction for moms, please go to comand look for a newspaper article on moms who band together (under In the media).
- Advocating for practical help. Starting in pregnancy, a mother should aim to have a plan for postpartum practical help in place. Women and men alike often expect a new mother to take care of all the house chores at the same time as she’s taking care of her baby, since she is ” not working” while on maternity leave. This is simply unrealistic and can create stress, exhaustion, self-disappointment and friction between spouses. Remember that mothers were not meant to raise children single- handedly or without help, hence the famous saying It takes a village to raise a child. Regretfully, with the dispersion of extended families, practical help is no longer ” built in” to our family lives. If you are in a position to provide practical help, that’s great. If not, encouraging and helping a mother to devise a plan for practical help could be immensely helpful.
- Encourage a mother to seek professional help if she is not doing well. If you are in a position to know that a pregnant or a new mother is suffering emotionally, is depressed, anxious, is experiencing marital distress or is having noticeable and significant reactions to a traumatic birth, encourage her to seek the help of a psychologist. The sooner a new mother will receive professional treatment, the better outcome her and her baby are going to have both in the short and the long run.