Whether planned and longed for or coming as a surprise, there’s no predicting how you’ll react when a baby is on the way. Some parents describe feeling ‘love at first sight’ on greeting their baby for the first time. But to many this can be a misleading expectation, causing anxiety and guilt when they do not feel this way. ‘Bonding’ with your baby is a gradual process, whatever intense emotions may surround the birth. As in other relationships, and it takes time and ongoing work to grow to understand and tune in to each other. And after all, babies don’t have spoken language to help us make sense of what is going on inside their minds and bodies. But they do communicate through a variety of cries, expressions and gestures, and they sense your close attention to what they’re experiencing as they adapt to life outside the womb, even if you feel that you haven’t a clue!
- Try to think of this as a shared journey of discovery about each other, rather than getting it ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.
The Shock of the New
Even after a ‘normal’ full term delivery feelings of shock can dominate, for mothers and others present at the birth. And there is bound to be more preoccupation and worry when there are complications. Adoptive parents too may find it disconcerting not to feel overwhelmed by love for a child they have long awaited; ‘Surely this is what I always wanted, why don’t I feel ecstatic?’. As reality dawns that life will never be quite the same, fear of the unknown and the daunting responsibilities of parenthood are likely to surface, as well as excitement about the future. So, remember, it’s common to experience ambivalence about parenthood, during pregnancy and after the birth, though some new parents are more troubled by conflicting thoughts and emotions than others and may benefit from professional help.
If you are well enough to spend close time gazing at your newborn soon after the birth this can be a wonderful period to start weaving together the fantasies and expectations formed in pregnancy with the reality of the little person (or people) now in front of you. Healthy new-borns usually spend quite a bit of time in a ‘quiet alert’ state, ideal for taking it all in, and even imitating parents’ facial expressions. If there are other children in the family your focus on the newest arrival may be clouded by concerns about the impact on others as the family adapts and expands. Even if it isn’t your usual way, try to accept or ask for help as much as you can.
- This relationship is unique and getting used to each other is as new to your baby as it is to you, whether you are a first-time parent or not.
Talking to others
New parenthood can be very isolating – being with a baby doesn’t compensate for the loss of adult company. If you can brave talking to other parents and those near to you when you feel things aren’t going so well this can help to dispel worries and you’ll feel less lonely. Your Health Visitor or GP are also there for support, and can refer you on for specialist help if need be. Try to be open about your feelings. One new mother felt she was ‘just going through the motions’, as if it was ‘someone else’s baby’ she was looking after. As this persisted beyond the early weeks, when exhaustion often colours everyday experience, her HV referred her for parent infant psychotherapy and she gradually began to feel more lively and connected to her baby. A father was surprised to feel excluded by his partner’s intense involvement with their baby, reviving some childhood feelings of being ‘left out’ in the family. His guilty rivalry with the baby got in the way of involving himself more and he and his partner rowed about his perceived lack of interest. They attended some sessions together with the baby. Reflecting on how parenthood was impacting on their relationship helped them communicate more about how they were each changing and to make way for the newcomer.
- New parenthood is very demanding but also a time when relationships can grow and deepen if you work at communicating.
Child Psychotherapist specialising in psychotherapy with parents and infants and children under 5.
The Association for Infant Mental Health ‘Getting to know your Baby’ videos http://www.aimh.org.uk/parent-resources
Dilys Daws & Alexandra de Rementeria (2015) ‘Finding your Way with Your Baby’