Emotional attunement and bonding at birth include several important relational interactions, such as eye contact between the mother and child. Until recently, adults assumed that newborn infants couldn’t see. In fact, infants are myopic, or nearsighted, and able to see optimally at a distance of about 12 inches. Interestingly, this is the distance from the breast to the mother’s face. Nursing newborns or infants held close to the breast can focus their eyes on the faces of their mothers. Everything else they see is out of focus. Mother Nature is pretty intelligent. She creates newborns with the kind of eyesight needed for good bonding.
The first experiences of eye contact between parent and child are very important for bonding. Ideally, it allows your parents to see your essence and feel a sense of anticipation and discovery about your unique unfolding as an individual. If your parents looked at you and were unable to really see your essence, this impacted your ability to bond with them. Perhaps your mother thought, “I want you to grow up to be a beautiful actress” or your father thought, “I want you to grow up to be a doctor.” Parents often project their own unfulfilled wishes and dreams onto their children.
Children, even newborns, are so attuned to their parents that they can perceive when they are being received unconditionally and when they are not. In addition to the extended skin-to-skin contact recommended during the first 12 to 36 hours after birth, research indicates that a full body massage given to infants immediately after birth while lying in a tub of warm water, can enhance the bonding process. It is best if the mother or father does this massage, although someone with formal massage training is next best. Head-to-toe touch activates the infant’s nervous system and releases chemicals that activate brain cells. Repeated infant massages by the mother and/or father during the first several months after birth can also facilitate deeper bonding.
Singing to the young infant is also very important. Infants can recognize tunes they heard while they were in the womb. Michael Odent (1984) is famous for having groups of parents and prospective parents sing together around a piano.
It is also important to maintain eye contact while speaking to the infant in soft, loving tones. As the child begins to respond with smiles and laughter, the positive effects of resonance and early bonding emerge. Mirroring infants’ sounds and smiles helps build early communication.
Well-bonded infants naturally respond with curiosity to other friends and family. Mis-attuned infants will be fearful of others and cling to their parents or comfort objects.
Creating An Optimal Birth Bonding Process
A group of dedicated professionals, calling themselves the Coalition for Improving Maternity Services, formed a powerful alliance in the summer of 1996 to promote a wellness model of maternity care. They outlined a set of ten principles they call “The Mother-Friendly Childbirth Initiative: Ten Steps to Mother-Friendly Hospitals, Birth Centers, and Home Birth Services” (1996). When all ten steps are achieved in an institution, it is designated as “Mother-Friendly.” Here are the ten requirements:
- Offering unrestricted access to birth companions (doulas) to provide continuous emotional and physical support during labor.
- Access to midwifery care.
- Provision of accurate descriptions and statistical information to the public, on procedures, and outcomes.
- Freedom to walk, move about, and assume positions of choice during labor and birth.
- Policies of cooperation with other caregivers providing maternity services to this family.
- Dropping routine practices not supported by scientific evidence such as withholding nourishment, early rupture of membranes, electronic fetal monitoring, and IV drips.
- Educating staff in non-drug methods of pain relief.
- Breastfeeding encouragement and follow-up support.
- Discouraging nonreligious circumcision of newborn children.
To strive to include another ten-step initiative already designed by the World Health Organization/UNESCO called “The Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative.” This initiative is currently being revised by the Coalition for inclusion with its “Mother-Friendly” program to educate all those involved in the birthing industry on the needs and conditions that promote optimal birth bonding.