Parents’ experiences of meeting and bonding with their babies

Most parents, mothers in particular, talked about meeting their newborn babies for the first time. Some experienced an immediate ‘rush of love’ while for others bonding was a more gradual process. Difficult births or separation after the birth made connecting with their babies harder for some women or brought additional worry in the early postnatal period. Parents with more than one child talked about their experiences with their second or later babies.

Many parents considered first meeting their babies a significant or life-changing emotional experience, describing it as ‘extraordinary’ or ‘amazing’. Several also said they had not expected their emotional response to their child to be so ‘powerful’.

Despite feeling ‘quite traumatised’ by labour and birth, Joanne said holding her son afterwards was an ‘amazing feeling’.

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Many parents described strong emerging feelings of responsibility for their newborn baby and his or her future, hoping to create the best opportunities possible for their child. As Zara recalled realising when her first child was born: ‘You’ve got this foreign little object, this little human that you’ve committed your life to’.

Josie was surprised by her overwhelming feelings of love after she saw her baby for the first time as she had not experienced ‘maternal instincts’ during pregnancy.

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A few fathers talked about their experiences of seeing their children for the first time, also describing this as an emotionally charged moment. A young father, Luke, said about his son’s birth: ‘… and then my sister passed him to me and just felt like everything else didn’t matter, that it was him, it’s what I wanted. I just felt, I don’t know … like that’s where I belong’.

Sila was reluctant to become a father when his ex-partner became pregnant, but this changed after he saw his newborn daughter.

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Not everyone felt overwhelming positive emotions of love and bonding immediately following the birth of a child. Many mothers recalled feeling disappointed or worried by this, as it didn’t match popular culture portrayals of birth and new mothers’ relationship with their babies.

Jane talked about meeting her twins after an elective caesarean and said instant bonding with a newborn was a ‘fairytale’.

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Several mothers who experienced bonding as a gradual process over time felt this was more common than is often acknowledged and should be recognised as ‘normal’ and talked about, rather than remaining hidden.

Michelle recalled feeling ‘overwhelmed’ after her son was born, and said her feelings for him developed gradually as she got to know him.

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Women who experienced very difficult or ‘traumatic’ births, or who had emergency caesareans talked about the impact of such experiences on how they felt when first meeting their baby. Mothers who were separated from their newborn babies following birth described missing out on immediate physical and emotional contact with their child. They described worrying about their babies, especially in relation to feeding or crying, as well as their own lack of knowledge about how to care for their baby.

Recovering from an emergency caesarean in a public hospital, Rumer recalled worrying about her baby being hungry and crying.

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Susanne had a very difficult birth and was deeply disappointed with the lack of support she experienced through her baby’s birth. She worried about doing a ‘bad job of mothering’ and the impact of having a child on her life.

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A couple of parents did not have immediate contact with their newborns or were quickly separated from them because their babies were born prematurely and taken into special care (see
Experiences of pre-term birth, special care, stillbirth and death of a baby). As Andrew said about his twins who were born at 33 weeks: ‘As exciting as that was, it was also a bit hard to see them in humidicribs, in the neonatal intensive care unit, not be able to touch them’.

Other parents did not experience immediate, post-birth contact with their children because they became parents through adoption or surrogacy. A single father via surrogacy, Matthew was not able to attend the birth of his daughter in India. He described his feelings upon meeting her for the first time: ‘just fascination really’ and a ‘miracle … I didn’t have any issues with feeling attached to her’.

Daniel said meeting his twin daughters in India for the first time was ‘lovely’. At the same time he regretted not being able to attend their births by their respective surrogate mothers.

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French talked about how she felt when she first met her three adopted children in India.

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A few mothers who experienced emotional distress and were either diagnosed or self-identified as having postnatal depression talked about the difficulties they experienced connecting with their babies, and how this made them feel (see Social support during antenatal and postnatal depression). Most, however, developed a bond with their baby over time with support from partners, family or friends, or through treatment for postnatal depression.

A couple of new mothers were concerned about the impact on their relationships with their partner when their partner developed a strong bond with their baby. Some felt neglected and said it took a long time for new, family relationships to be negotiated in place of the previous couple relationship. Although fathers often feel displaced by a new baby, this was not reported by any parents we talked to.

Tina initially resented and ‘hated’ her daughter as she felt her husband was overly focused on the child, while neglecting her as a wife.

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For most mothers, the experience of meeting a second or later baby was similar to their experience meeting their first child. They commented on some differences, but mostly in terms of being ‘better prepared’ for the second child and knowing what to expect in terms of giving birth. A couple of mothers said bonding with their second child was easier due to an easier second birth.

Maree compared her experiences with her first and second babies, discussing why it was easier for her with a second baby.

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A few mothers also wondered if they would be able to love a second baby as much as their first, including Joanne: ‘When people ask about a second baby – oh, I’ve no room left in my heart for anybody else. But I know that I will, even if I got pregnant today I would, but it doesn’t feel like that when you’ve got your first little baby’.

For some mothers, second or later babies were more challenging. Erin, a mother of six, contrasted her first ‘perfect baby’ with her second child: ‘He was lovely. But he was so very unlike my daughter. He was very demanding. So he was a real shock… I’m not saying he wasn’t amazing, but he was just like what you would expect a newborn to be. He was demanding, he cried, he didn’t sleep, he was fussy, he had colic, he had everything’.

Louise described how difficulties conceiving her second child impacted on how she felt towards him and about second-time parenthood.

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A couple of mothers had a particularly strong attachment to their second or later babies. This was because some lost their first children due to pre-term birth, stillbirth or late miscarriage, or their second or later baby needed prolonged medical attention and hospitalisation following birth.

For Sian meeting her second newborn baby was a particularly emotional event as her first baby died at 17 weeks gestation.

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Sarah M was strongly attached to her third child, a baby boy born at 30 weeks.

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