When it comes to postpartum mental health, many parents struggle to building a connection with their little ones. There may be feelings of resentment that our lives have changed. You may feel too tired to want to play or sing nurseries. Your anxiety feels too high for you to be comfortable spending time alone with your infant. Whatever the reasons may be, you’ve been coping these months by maintaining an emotional distance from your child and feel desperate to build a bond with your baby.
I want you to know that attachment can be formed irrespective of postpartum mental health. Our relationships can always grow and develop, even when the onset was rocky. The first five years with your child are pivotal, and there are many things that can be done from hereon in to nurture this new relationship safely and without overwhelming your nerves or emotions.
The following strategies will help you feel more secure to meet your baby’s needs. No, they’re not all about singing songs or giving massages. I recognize that singing and massages are great options, but not everyone is at this starting point. So, let’s start slow so that we can get you to a place of feeling more confident to building a better relationship.
1. Introduce your infant to activities that you enjoy doing.
When the bond with your baby is already feeling tested, it’s incredibly hard to push ourselves to do “baby-focused” activities. Your motivation and desire to encourage tummy time or play peek-a-boo is next to nil. When you feel this way, it’s not helpful to ask you to force it. This may work for a day or two, but a stressful event will likely bring you back to square one. Instead, I want to encourage taking small steps that will feel more manageable for your system.
When you focus on your hobbies and interests, you’re often able to relax. There’s less pressure to perform. You have less anxieties about ensuring you’re “doing it right” and, instead, can just enjoy the task at hand. Whether it’s going for a run, cooking a meal, painting, reading a book, playing dungeons and dragons, there are creative ways to bring your baby into your world. Bust out that jogger to take your little one on a run with you. Introduce your baby to different smells, and speak to her about the different spices that are going into your meal. Show her the different colors you’re using while painting. Read outloud from your book so that your baby learns new words. Have her roll large dice for your various rounds in a board game. There are ways to still be you and foster your own interests while including your baby.
2. Build confidence with a support person
When you’re feeling insecure about being a parent, the pressure of parenting independently can feel like too much. Let your partner, friends, or family members know how you feel. Your sense of overwhelm with the baby does not mean you cannot be a good parent. Attachment struggles are a common sign of postpartum anxiety. Rather than avoid your baby all together (many have been here!), or become flooded with frustration or resentment, try and share the load.
Speak with your family members about spending more time together so that you can grow into this role. It’s easier to play with the baby or learn to handle colicky moments when you have a safe friend or family member supporting you. Your trusted person may give tips (tell them to cool it if it feels too much), or may provide you encouragement as you try. They may be wonderful at providing a distraction, so that you’re less focused on doing things perfectly. This support should also include your friend providing you a time out when you have met your limit and need to take a breather.
A word of caution that it can feel tempting to step away and allow your family member to take over. But if you are hanging out with your little one and there’s a fellow adult around, the conversation feels easier, and there’s less strain to manage by yourself. When you’ve had enough practice with your infant, speak with your support person about coming over for shorter visits. By slowly reducing the amount of support available, you are practicing gradual exposure. This type of practice helps you work set realistic goals within your window of tolerance, and slowly build confidence as you spend more time independently parenting.
3. Make sure you are getting enough time to sleep.
I know this point sounds strange as far as suggestions to improve the bond with your baby. However, one of the biggest turning points for postpartum mental health is having enough rest. You will never feel at your best if you are working off days or weeks of sleep deprivation. Trust that you will feel calmer, more energetic, more engaged and more like yourself when you’ve had sleep. Once you’ve had a solid week or two of rest, check in on your feelings towards your baby. Are you still feel that intense aversion or fear or has it shifted a bit?
For new parents, I strongly encourage working collaboratively to at least have longer segmented sleep. This might mean that one parent takes an early morning shift so that the other gets to sleep in. Or vice versa, whoever is the night owl takes on the later evening feed so that the other can rest. Understandably, parents will have to consider their comfort levels with pumping or formula feeding. While this is a personal choice, I want to emphasize that your system will feel significantly better after having at least four solid hours of rest.
4. Eye contact and Communication
Eye contact and verbal communication are effective ways to building a bond with your baby. These verbal and non-verbal cues help foster language skills and emotional intelligence in your little one. Your baby starts to recognize faces, understand facial cues, and builds a sense of safety with you. By communicating more, your baby will pick up on various words and gain a stronger understanding of language.
Maintaining eye contact can be incredibly difficulty, particularly if you struggle with attachment traumas or social anxiety. This strategy may not feel right for everyone, and I encourage you to be kind to yourself and where you are in your healing process. If it feels manageable, try and look directly at your baby while breastfeeding, changing diapers, and when doing any tasks related to your little one. Feel free to look away when the baby loses interest or is over-stimulated. I want to emphasize that doing even a little bit is better than nothing at all. If you are able to maintain eye contact while changing a diaper but feel overwhelmed during breastfeeding, work with that capacity.
Many parents with postpartum depression struggle to spend time with their babies, and it’s a big ask to encourage them to speak to their infants more often. If you are not “feeling it”, you don’t have to coo, speak in baby-talk, or sing nursery rhymes. Keep it simple. Describe what you’re doing in that moment with your baby, even it if it sounds like a tedious play by play. Talk about things that interest you in front of your infant so that they hear the variance in your speech patterns. Have conversations with other adults in front of your babies so they can witness different verbal and non-verbal expressions.
5. When there are no words, use hugs.
Sometimes the baby cries, and it’s the most aggravating experience. You can’t figure it out. You have tried changing diapers, feeding, rocking, and nothing is working. Rather than stress yourself further, if you have the ability, focus on just holding your baby. There’s no need to walk around or figure out a soothing gait. Spend that effort on giving your baby a gentle hug. Touch is one of the most reassuring options for your infant and it provides them a sense of safety. Having that skin to skin contact, when you don’t know the right words or actions to take, can help both you and the baby feel calmer. Building a bond with your baby can involve a variety of different strategies, but sometimes the simplest action of being held can be enough.
6. When there are no words, walk away.
I know this seems contradictory to the previous point, but this is to give you the option to decide your current capacity. I encourage you to start with hugs when you are capable of this action. When you feel you cannot take it, and you are at your max, it’s essential that you have permission to put the baby in the crib and walk away. Giving ourselves timeouts is a wonderful option to take a break, find ways to regulate, and try again after a few minutes. I encourage using a distress tolerance skill (e.g. dialectical behaviour therapy skills like ACCEPTS or changing temperature) during your timeouts as it is a fast way to calm your system.
7. Plan your day
Boredom can be a significant trigger for many people. When you are bored, your mind starts to wander and, oftentimes, you’re back to that pattern of anxious, racing thoughts. Boredom can lead you to that rabbithole of social media where you fall into the trap of comparing your life to others. Boredom can be a common push factor towards drinking. When we are aware that boredom plays a role in our emotional struggle, we can form a plan. When your mental health improves, your ability to build a bond with your baby also improves.
While parental leave can be wonderful, it can also involve long and tedious days. In many ways, going to work provides us a lot of stability: we have a consistent routine of getting up, tasks to accomplish, opportunities for social interaction and consistent break times. If we know what the day will include, it can ease our anxieties, and we can plan ahead for boredom.
So, what will you do this week? Can you try and wake up and go to bed at the same time each day? Do you have opportunities to socialize each day? Are there playdates that you can schedule, outings that you can plan, activities that you’ve wanted to try out? Are there new play gyms that are available in your city? Will you register for a new online parent and baby class? Are there some new and exciting activities or hobbies that you’ve been wanting to take up (with or without your little one around)?
8. Building a bond with your baby does not require perfect parenting
Parenting has become a dreaded term. It’s a job that involves a lot of effort and patience on your part, and very little on the part of your babies. And as with any job, you may be striving to do it right. While your intentions are commendable, the desire to parent well can sometimes lead to additional stress.
When it comes to providing for your baby, “good enough” is more than enough. We are not able to get it right all the time, and it’s unrealistic to expect this of anyone. There are always going to be factors that pull our attention and that prevent us from being able to attend to our child’s emotional cues. In reality, we only get it right about 30% of the time. Other times, we are completely missing the mark on our babies’ cues or working to repair that misattunement. This is perfectly normal and expected in all parents. Rather than getting our hopes up to parent perfectly, we can focus our attention on repair if we have made a mistake. Repair work may involve: apologizing if you’ve been cross, paying attention if your child is trying to engage you in play, or providing that gentle hug if your baby gets frightened by your exasperated sigh. Our expectations can ease when we know that we will only get it right 30% of the time AND that this 30% attunement is what we can expect even in the most loving and secure of relationships.
Everyone’s situation is unique. I don’t want to assume that the points I’ve listed out are going to meet your specific needs. If you are struggling with postpartum mental health and you’re concerned about the bond with your baby, reach out for a free consult. Postpartum mental health is treatable. You can get better, and your relationship with your child can be positive.