When a woman has a baby, she generally expects that as soon as the baby is put in her arms, she will fall instantly in love. For many women, this bonding does happen immediately or even before delivery. But as many as 20% of women admit that they didn’t bond immediately and the confusion and fear that triggers may contribute to postpartum depression (PPD).
The human body is regulated by the many hormones and other chemicals excreted by the brain. Although scientists aren’t always sure which comes first, the emotion or the hormone, there is no doubt that bonding is associated with the increased production of dopamine and oxytocin. Dopamine is the “happy hormone” secreted when we experience something we enjoy, while oxytocin is the “cuddle hormone,” produced when we cuddle with or nurture another person.
When bonding is limited or non-existent, so are these hormones. Without them, we feel like we’re just going through the motions, and resentment, guilt, sadness, and other negative emotions take the place of the feelings of joy and rapture we’re “supposed” to feel with a new baby.
Is it Postpartum Depression?
Symptoms of PPD are similar to those of general depression, with the care of a baby thrown into the mix. Sleep deprivation and added responsibilities, especially if there are other children to care for, can make anyone exhausted and weepy. But PPD is a more intense condition affecting multiple aspects of your life.
With PPD, you may have mood swings or sadness that won’t go away; you lose interest in things you used to enjoy; you withdraw from loved ones, including the baby; your sleep patterns are disturbed (more so than can be expected from being sleepless due to a newborn); you feel guilty and worthless; you have difficulty concentrating; you think about harming yourself or the baby.
Steps to Healing
So what can you do when you don’t bond with your baby right away? Is there any hope that you eventually will? Emphatically, yes! But you will need to take the situation in hand. Here are some steps I recommend to help you.
1. If you suspect PPD, seek professional help immediately. Don’t wait. Make sure the counselor is experienced with issues of PPD.
2. Don’t hide these feelings from your spouse or those closest to you. These feelings are common, so you don’t have to feel guilty or alone. Your family and friends love you and will want to help you, and sometimes just talking it out helps. But choose people you believe will be supportive. We all know people who are judgmental or who offer well-meaning but unhelpful advice.
3. Request and accept help to complete your daily duties and help that allows you to take breaks. Sometimes you just need a daily nap to help you see the light at the end of the tunnel. Arrange for friends or relatives to come in once a day to give you a break. Ask your husband to help when he is home. He needs to bond with his baby, too.
4. Even if you don’t feel warm and fuzzy, cuddle with your baby. Babies’ brains need the physical contact as well as feelings of security, warmth, and love in order to grow healthiest. Cuddle and bathe the baby, coo and smile. The baby needs that, and, in fact, so do you, to kickstart the oxytocin. It may not be enough to overcome the lack of bonding you are feeling right now, but those feelings are not likely to come if you don’t go through the motions. Give yourself breaks and have other loving people help you create that warmth and security the child needs as you’re recovering, but do make the effort.
Even if you don’t think you have PPD, sometimes talking to a professional anyway can help. I have helped many mothers navigate their way out of depression, or even just the feeling of being overwhelmed, to the joy of motherhood.