Ashley Brichter is a Doula, a Childbirth Educator, a Mom and the founder of Birthsmarter - an amazing resource of unique birthing and parenting classes that take science, compassion, and activism into account. In honor of maternal Mental Health Awareness Month, we sat down with Ashley to talk about bonding with your baby in the first few weeks.
You hear a lot about bonding with your baby immediately after birth. Can you talk about the importance of this and what to do? Can you talk about what this means exactly and what we should know?
What we know is that bonding - or developing a hormonal connection with your baby has so many positive benefits - not only for the babies and parents themselves but, for society at large.
Especially on the heels of 2020 we can not underestimate the importance of human connection and belonging. In public health, there’s a term called The First Thousand Days. The concept refers to the period from conception until a child’s second birthday and it’s been shown to be a critical window for not only neurological and physical development but social-emotional development as well.
Is this where skin-to-skin contact comes into play?
Yes! With good reason, one of the trendiest habits we have for initiating early bonding postpartum is holding your baby skin-to-skin. This means your baby, wearing nothing but a diaper, would lie on your (or any caregiver’s) bare chest.
Skin-to-skin contact with our babies helps both of us increase the production of oxytocin, our bonding, love, feel-good hormone. Skin-to-skin- also helps to regulate baby’s body temperature, breathing patterns, microbiome, and nervous system.
Being a new parent is so hard! And on top of all the newness, you’re expected to feel immediately connected with this new little being. What if you don’t feel an immediate bond with your baby. What should you do?
A lot of people don’t feel immediately connected to their babies. Sometimes it takes a few days, weeks, or even months to feel the bond and joy of parenting set in. When you think about it, it’s actually not all that surprising that many parents struggle through the newborn phase. Parenting a newborn is one of the hardest jobs on the planet. There’s no prior training. The risks are extreme. You’re operating on little to no sleep. And, there’s absolutely no positive feedback to help you keep going.
All that to say, if someone is not feeling an immediate bond with their baby the first step is to normalize and make space for those feelings. From there, you can think about what to do.
Give us some practical things we can do with our babies and ourselves to work towards connection and self-care.
Love up on your babies. Some ideas for what this can look like are:
- Frequent contact through holding your baby skin-to-skin and using a wearable baby carrier, wrap, or sling can be helpful towards promoting bonding.
- Developing an Infant Massage practice throughout the day or before bedtime is a lovely way of bonding!
- Taking a bath with your baby and connecting in the water can help you connect. (This can be especially meaningful after a traumatic birth). (Side note, processing your birth story in general and through writing, body work, or alternative therapies can also be transformative for folks having a hard time).
When it comes to self-care, I tell my clients: Fill your own cup. Take short breaks away. Ask for help.
- The flip side of loving up on your babies is recognizing that in order to bond, some parents really need time away. Time to fill their own cup to “feel like themselves.”
- Having family, friends or postpartum doulas care for your baby throughout the day and week so that you can take a shower, go for a walk, tidy your bedroom, send an email - literally do anything other than take care of the baby often does wonders to reset a mood.
- ASK FOR HELP. More often than not you’ve gotta make it happen for yourself. It’s worth it!
- And, when all else fails just give it time. Sometimes it’s not until the first smile or belly laugh. Sometimes it’s not until they can talk and think and joke. If you’re not feeling that immediate bond - know that it’s coming and then the love is more tremendous than anything you’ve felt before.
It’s not necessarily intuitive to think about yourself when taking care of a newborn. And being postpartum is emotional in the healthiest of circumstances. Talk to us about postpartum mental health + how to check in with yourself. When should someone be concerned that they might need help?
It's so important we talk about this. I usually start with these questions:
- Are you sad, angry, or anxious more than you were before the baby was born?
- Are your normal coping strategies (talking to a friend, going for a walk, doing some stretching, taking a shower, ordering a pizza etc) not cutting it anymore?
In my experience, almost everyone has waves of increased sadness, rage, and anxiety postpartum. But, for people that have dealt with those feelings before, they often just need a reminder to take care of themselves, a reminder to take the space, make the phone call, center their own needs for a minute!
When those coping strategies no longer work for you, and you can’t manage the feelings on your own, and / or you feel like your feelings are getting in the way of your life or your relationships, it’s time to reach out to a postpartum mental health specialist.
Ok - here’s the BUT. The caveat.
While I think the framework above is helpful, it’s also based on our culture of rugged individualism, treating symptoms, and waiting until the last possible moment to get help. What if we took a preventative approach instead?
You mean we should just be prepared to need support postpartum?
Yes, I think so. Postpartum mood and anxiety disorders hit on a spectrum. We know that at least 1 in 7 parents suffer from a diagnosable perinatal mood disorder, but in all likelihood that number drastically underestimates how many people suffer. It’s important to realize that you don’t have to be crying all day everyday, or resenting your baby, or having intrusive thoughts to need individual therapy or postpartum support groups. In reality, bits and pieces of these experiences show up for most new parents at different times and developing the tools to cope with the anxiety and overwhelm that comes from parenthood should be routine.
I recently heard a quote that said something to the effect of: new moms don’t think they have depression or anxiety–they just feel like they’re failing.
When we say it like that, when we recognize just how universal it is to overthink and question and worry, to live in a world of “I should” and “I should have,” it’s easy to understand why every new mom could use more help.
In light of Maternal Mental Health Month, maybe we treat having a baby as the warning sign and normalize therapy, postpartum doulas, pelvic floor therapy - and of course paid parental leave.
Do you have some maternal mental heath resources you can share?
Postpartum Support International (PSI) offers a 24-hour Helpline as well as a directory to search for mental health providers.
We can't thank you enough, Ashley, for sharing your wisdom with us! The early days are hard and new, and different with every delivery and every baby. The more awareness we have entering these new phases of life, the better. If you'd like to know more about Ashley's classes you can visit her site, Birth Smarter.