Bonding and attachment basics

Attachment is the strong, long-lasting bond between a baby and the person or people who care for him.

Bonding happens over time, but it’s built on everyday moments – things like smiling at your baby, touching her, using loving words and responding to her needs. Bonding grows at different rates with different parents and babies. It’s a two-way process between you and your baby.

It’s normal for it to take time for you to feel fully bonded with your baby.

Attachment, bonding and a warm relationship with you help your baby feel safe and secure. This lays the foundation for all areas of your baby’s development.

Bonding with premature babies in the NICU

You might worry that you won’t be able to bond with your premature baby in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).

It’s true that you’re separated from your baby because he needs to be cared for in the hospital. You might not be able to see and hold him early on, or even visit him as much as you’d like because of distance or older children. The worry about your baby’s health might also get you down.

But there’s a lot you can do in the NICU to feel close to your baby and develop a bond.

Tips for bonding in the NICU

Even though your baby was born early, your baby ‘knows’ you – your voice and your smell. Your presence will give your baby a sense of familiarity and comfort. This is a great starting point for bonding.

Here are some ideas to help you and your baby bond while she’s in the NICU.

Touching and holding
Touching, holding and massaging your baby can help your baby feel calm, cared for and supported. For example, you could hold your baby’s hand or cup his feet. If your baby is ready, you can do kangaroo care – holding your baby skin to skin.

Your baby will learn that she can rely on you to help her feel calm.

Learning your premature baby’s body language
Babies use body language to show how they’re feeling.

Over time, you’ll learn how to tune into your premature baby’s body language. You’ll start to know whether he wants closeness, or whether he’s had enough stimulation. The medical staff can also help you start reading your baby’s signs.

Playing with your premature baby
Playing with your baby helps:

  • you get to know each other
  • your baby’s brain develop
  • your baby feel loved and secure
  • your baby learn about relationships and comfort
  • your baby learn about the physical environment she can see, hear, feel and smell.

While your baby is in the NICU, play can be making faces, singing, smiling and reading to him. Always pay close attention to your baby’s body language so you know when he’s had enough.

Sharing your smell
Holding your baby is a fantastic way to help your baby recognise your smell. If you can’t do that yet, you could put something that smells of you in your baby’s incubator – for example, a t-shirt.

Check that it’s OK with your baby’s doctor first. Avoid using perfume or scented deodorant because these can interfere with your baby getting to know your smell.

Being predictable
Doing things in a similar way each time helps your baby recognise that you’re the special consistent person in her day. For example, saying or doing the same thing each time you’re about to do kangaroo care gives your baby the cue that something pleasant is about to happen. She’ll start to feel secure about you and your way of being with her.

Expressing breastmilk
Your breastmilk is the best food for your baby. You might feel like there’s nothing you can do for your baby, but expressing breastmilk is something that only you can do.

Caring for baby
Your baby’s care team will show you how to help care for your baby. You can help wash your baby’s face, change nappies or reposition your baby. Through caring for your baby, you’ll start to  feel a part of your baby’s life, and he’ll learn to recognise you. You’ll also learn how to handle your baby in the ways he likes best.

Looking after yourself
If you have a premature baby in the NICU, it can be stressful for you. It’s also normal to feel a lot of different emotions. Looking after yourself in the NICU and accepting your feelings is good for your wellbeing. And when you’re well, you’ll be better able to care for and bond with your baby.

Repeated human contact through touch, cuddling, talking, singing and facial expressions will help your baby’s brain to develop. These actions make the brain produce chemicals and hormones that make a baby grow emotionally and physically.