Bonding simply means a strong emotional tie between two people who trust each other. According to psychologists, every baby needs to establish a strong bond with at least one person while growing up.
Children who establish loving and stable relationships with reliable adults grow up with solid self-esteem and an ability to create stable relationships later in life. Needless to say, this is something all children should have.
The term bonding usually refers to the bond the baby establishes with a parent, not vice versa.
Bonding is crucial to survival
When a baby is born, it is unable to survive on its own. It depends completely on your caring and protective instincts towards it. In order for a baby to feel secure, it needs love, closeness and somebody to satisfy its basic needs for sleep, food, nappy changes and warmth.
As soon as an infant is born, it does everything to kick-start the parent's protective instincts. From a physiological viewpoint, an emotional bond is developed by means of specific brain cells called mirror neurons, which enable us to react and feel the same way as another person when we look at them. For example, we become sad when the other person cries and we feel empathy and an urge to help when the person is in need. It is no coincidence that we find babies cute, as well as kittens and other baby animals. It's almost impossible to resist caring for them.
If a baby feels threatened or abandoned, it will automatically seek closeness and confirmation of being protected. It does this through actions such as crying or screaming to get your attention.
Can you spoil babies with too much attention?
For a long period of time, paediatric experts in the western world advocated the importance of babies developing independence. It was maintained that babies should sleep in their own bed, that crying and screaming should not necessarily be rewarded with comfort, and that toddlers should be taught to play in groups at preschool from an early age.
According to the more modern bonding theory, a baby's independence should be built on the basis of a secure emotional bond. Today, most child psychologists believe it's better to be sensitive to the individual child's needs than forcing them to develop independence.
Today, experts maintain that little children can't be spoiled by too much closeness and love.
Who can an infant bond with?
Gender and biological relationship make no difference to a baby's ability to bond with somebody. An infant can bond with several people – e.g. parents, grandparents, siblings or preschool staff – but not too many. It is hard to establish the deeper relationship often referred to as a "specific bond" if the infant is constantly interacting with new people.
Developing a basic sense of trust
All the senses we know about work right from birth, although vision and hearing continue developing during the first weeks of the infant's life. Talk to your child a lot. Notice how its senses and brain are developing.
During the first period of life, babies learn to feel a basic sense of trust. They learn how their own behaviour affects their surroundings. Responding to a baby's crying by comforting it makes the baby feel that the world can be trusted. This reassures the baby of its worth and helps it develop security and confidence.
If a parent or other adults ignore the baby's signals or frequently behaves unpredictably, the bond can be damaged. If an infant feels abandoned, it will feel deep anxiety, followed by crying and despair and finally resignation and apathy.
Needless to say, it is even worse if the baby's main caregiver also subjects the baby to fits of rage or physical abuse. If nobody else is available, the baby will be forced to seek intimacy and protection from a person who also represents a threat. This type of relationship can make it extremely difficult for the child to feel trust later in life.
Separation can undermine trust
Separation anxiety is completely natural. It usually starts around the age of 6 to 8 months, but can be even stronger at about 12 months. The baby might become clingy or start sleeping less soundly. Now you need to make the baby feel even more secure so it has the courage to step out and start exploring the world.
Bonding is based on trust. When you disappear out of the room, your baby may feel abandoned. It can help if you tell them you will soon be back, and do it before they start getting anxious. Once your baby understands the procedure and realises you always come back, its sense of trust will increase. On the other hand, it may become less trusting if you remain away too long or don't keep your promise.
Repeatedly experiencing traumatic separations or constant fear of separation has been found to make children more insecure than definitive separations, for instance in connection with adoption or death of a parent.
When getting your infant used to preschool, allow them the time they need to develop a sense of security and trust in a staff member before you leave for long periods of time. How long this takes varies between infants.
Infants are individuals
As most parents with more than one child can attest to, children's reactions are highly individual from an early age.
Infants are individuals right from the start, just like people are later in life. They can differ in terms of what makes them worried, sad and angry and how they want to be comforted. Your friends' tips on how to put a baby to bed may not work as well for your baby. Some babies need more reassurance than others, and at times this can be challenging for you. But never forget that you are probably the person with the best chance of giving your baby what it needs most.
Repeating familiar routines makes all children feel safe.
If you have difficulty satisfying your baby's need for bonding
New parents may find it hard to deal with their baby's needs and all the expectations on them. This applies to both the mother and the father or partner. Sometimes this difficulty is linked to postpartum depression. This is not an uncommon problem. It is nothing to be ashamed of, even though it is often not talked about openly. Speak to your midwife or the staff at your paediatric centre.
Both parents are welcome to attend the appointments at the paediatric centre. This is a good opportunity for you to participate equally and to meet other parents with children the same age.
It can also feel good to share experiences with other parents at parent meetings or online. This allows you to share advice, opinions and experiences with other parents, and can sometimes be comforting if things are feeling tough.
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