What is bonding?

Quick Answer
The formation of an attachment; specifically, the developing relationship between infants and their parents that begins immediately after birth.
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Physical and Psychological Factors

Bonding is usually associated with neonates (newborns), but it is an ongoing relationship that occurs between infants, toddlers, or children and their caretakers.

After the initial cry, the neonate calms down and uses its first touch with the mother to relax. This experience may occur in a brightly lit hospital room with medical attendants or in a semidark birthing room at home with nurses or midwives attending. Usually, the infant is placed on the mother’s abdomen for contact to begin. The initial moments of connection may include the parents touching, rubbing, and stroking the baby’s cheeks, fingers, toes, abdomen, and back. Research reports that even in these early moments, an infant may engage in limited imitations of the parents by moving the head, opening and closing the mouth, and responding to their facial gestures.

These first touches begin the relationship that may initiate a successful bonding attachment with the primary caregivers and the extended family. Some circumstances, however, may start a process that does not lead to successful attachment. The process of bonding between a newborn and caregivers is an essential part of normal development. The care that the infant receives at this point, as well as through the subsequent early stages of life, is vital to his or her healthy development. Some infants, however, may need ancillary medical care that removes the child from the mother’s touch and postpones connecting immediately after birth.

As the infant begins to grow, the early stages of development should be supported, sharpened, and enhanced during the continuing developmental and bonding process. Babies actively seek stimulation, and the first week of life involves hearing, seeing, smelling, and touching. Distinguishing sounds is a learning process. Soft noises, lullabies, and soft music are soothing. Basic visual powers exist that are important for communication and learning. Infants are sensitive to the intensity of light. They can discriminate shapes and patterns. Feeding involves smelling food, distinguishing tastes, and becoming aware of the presence of the mother or primary caregiver. The infant can feel changes in temperature and respond to skin contact and touch.

While bonding tends to be associated with the mother-infant relationship, the attachment and bonding process also includes the relationship with the other parent, siblings, and other relatives who come into frequent contact with the developing baby. The interaction within this social network creates a variety of relationships and opportunities for positive and responsive stimulation, support, and encouragement. Connections with grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins can provide strong supportive bonds that help infants thrive. The strength of these relationships can make up for limitations with the primary caregivers.

Disorders and Effects

The relationship between some caregivers and infants may encounter serious problems as they try to establish attachment. Bonding disorders such as failure to thrive can occur with infants who are abused or neglected. One of the major reasons that babies in institutions do not do well is the infrequent handling and touching that they receive.

Infants exhibiting failure to thrive show a variety of symptoms. They are usually quite small. They appear ill, listless, and immobile and may be unable to digest food. Other symptoms of failure to thrive include low birth weight, eye contact avoidance, and evidence of delayed development. Improvements can occur with appropriate feeding and care. Failure to thrive may also occur due to purely physical causes, such as congenital genetic disorders. Such disorders are generally not reversible, unless the specific defect can be corrected medically.

If a mother had early developmental experiences of abuse and neglect, these experiences may appear as obstacles to the development of her own infant. The mother of a failure-to-thrive infant may be using drugs or alcohol. She may be depressed, physically or mentally ill, or unable to cope well enough to provide a positive bonding experience for her child. She may have recently been involved in a significant crisis that was emotionally draining.

Significant variables may precede the attachment phase, or environmental forces may impede the infant’s maternal attachment as the bonding process proceeds. If the infant does not have a positive experience with the mother during the first months of life, developmental problems may begin. When the mother or infant must remain in a hospital for a prolonged period of time, the mother may be unavailable; nurturing can be delayed or occur only for short periods. A mother may be psychologically unable to be close to her infant because of other young children or her own psychological problems or disorders. Some mothers experience postpartum depression as a result of hormonal imbalances and overwhelming demands. Economic and social circumstances may also impede the bonding process.

Establishing warm, comforting relationships through interactions between babies, parents, caregivers, and other family members in the earliest weeks is critical to forming secure attachments and developing successful bonding.


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