How do babies form attachments?
Attachment is when a baby and caregiver form a strong connection with each other, emotionally and physically.
Bonding with your baby is important. It helps to release hormones and chemicals in the brain that encourage rapid brain growth. Bonding also promotes the development of connections between brain cells that are critical for learning; the growth of your baby's body; and the positive development of your baby's sense of who they are and how they deal with feeling upset.
Newborns don't know what they need. They have to be helped by a caregiver who will calmly respond to their physical needs and also provide plenty of love.
Who do babies form attachments to?
Babies usually attach to their main caregiver, but they can certainly bond with other people.
It's usual for a baby to attach to their mother, since by about week 31, a baby can recognise and be soothed by the mother's voice while in the womb. By the time they're born, newborns can even recognise some sounds of their mother's native language.
The father, grandparents and significant childcare workers can also bond with a baby. This is particularly important if a mother is finding it difficult to form an attachment, is depressed, or there is some other reason why she can't pay full attention to her baby.
If you are the baby's mum, and they form attachments with other important people, this does not mean your baby will be less attached to you. It helps your baby to learn about being close to people.
How do I bond with my baby?
When you respond to your newborn's needs, you will probably start seeing behaviour or signals that show that he or she is attached to you. These will depend on their age and level of development and could include:
- making eye contact with you
- smiling, cooing, laughing or making other noises directed at you
- holding out their arms to you
- crawling after you
- copying you
- crying for what they need while looking at you
- looking interested in something you're doing
Responding to your baby
You can't spoil a baby by giving them too much attention. They need you to help them with the things they can't do for themselves — whether it's changing their nappy, helping alleviate their pain or hunger, providing warmth, or giving them plenty of affection and play. Responding to what they want and need builds their trust in you, and helps them feel confident.
Mothers are biologically designed to act when their babies cry so you may feel anxious if you can't respond to your baby straight away. If you can see that your baby has everything they need and are safe, reassure them that you'll be there as soon as you can. When you're with your baby again, calmly sooth and comfort them.
Ways to bond with your baby
Here are some bonding techniques you can try:
- Learn to read your baby's cues and signals to you and let your baby know you understand.
- Copy your baby's noises or signals, then wait for your baby to respond before continuing.
- Once you have learned what your baby likes, do it regularly.
- Start new activities gently, rather than abruptly, and talk calmly about what you're doing.
- Soothe and cuddle your baby when they're upset.
- Hold your baby on the left side of your chest, so they can hear your heartbeat.
- Provide skin-to-skin contact (for example, while breastfeeding). You could also massage your baby.
- Smile and laugh while looking into your baby's eyes.
- Talk, sing, read books and play simple games together.
- Bathe your baby before bed.
What if I'm not bonding with my baby?
Some parents experience an instant connection to their baby within the first 24 hours after birth and describe it as an overwhelming feeling of love and protectiveness.
Don't worry if you don't feel this straight away. Although attachment is important for your baby, relationships can sometimes take a while to grow and you may find that it takes you days, weeks or even months to bond with your baby.
Communicate regularly with family members and friends and don't put extra pressure on yourself. The lack of a strong, initial bond does not mean you're not a 'natural' parent.
Where can I get more information and advice?
- Talk to your doctor, child health nurse or midwife.
- Find a parenting helpline that suits you here.
- Call Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636.
Speak to a maternal child health nurse
Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.
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Last reviewed: February 2021