The normal development of a baby depends upon several inputs that her tiny brain receives in infancy. If the newborn baby receives warmth and affection from the parents and caretakers, the mental development is positive and desirable.

Numerous studies have established that babies nurtured in an unfriendly and hostile environment end up with a stunted mental development, learning disabilities and hyperactive disorders in later life. Also, poor emotional bonds give rise to mistrust in the baby’s mind and makes her irritable and aggressive. So, constant love and affection in a healthy environment are essential for the baby’s future wellbeing.

Parent-infant bonding starts even before the baby is born—from the day the couple discovers that they are expecting their baby. It is further enhanced when the mother has a sensation of her baby moving in the uterus.

Soon after delivery and in the following few weeks, sensory [sight, sound, touch] contact between the parents and the baby triggers various mutually rewarding and pleasurable interactions.

Sight

Immediately after birth, ‘rooming in’ is encouraged. That means that the baby is laid next to the mother on the same bed, and not in a separate nursery.

Face-to-face contact is essential for the initial bonding between the newborn and her parents. You must position your face close to your baby’s while smiling or talking to him. This is because a newborn can only see about a foot away from her body. This distance is known as the breastfeeding distance. Feel and express happiness when holding your baby, smile with eye contact and watch how your baby stares back. At the age of 6 – 8 weeks, your baby will smile when he sees you. This is called the social smile.

Babies never tire of looking at faces, so surround them with photos to strengthen their relationship with family members.

Touch

Bonding by touch is of utmost importance. This includes the mother touching the baby’s face, hands and legs with her fingers and gently caressing or massaging the baby with her hands. Touching the infant’s cheek causes the baby to turn the face toward the breast [rooting reflex] and this is a powerful stimulus for release of a hormone prolactin in the mother that enhances milk production. Another essential hormone called oxytocin is also released by touching, fondling the baby and suckling of the baby at the breast. During the first 24 hours, uninterrupted contact between the baby and the mother [and father] should be maintained. In certain situations, there is a delay in the initial interaction between the newborn and her family. The most common cause for this is when the baby is admitted to a neonatal ICU because of a medical emergency. This is seen commonly with babies who are born preterm, underweight or need oxygen or intravenous medications for breathing trouble or infection. Certain babies who are born with birth defects also need to kept back in the hospital for special care, while the mother is discharged a few days after delivery. However, even in these situations, as soon as the baby’s medical condition permits it, the mother is allowed to hold, caress and feed her little one.

Breastfeeding not only ensures that the baby gets all her nutritional requirements but it also promotes bonding of the mother and her baby. Feeding a newborn baby is required day and night, usually at a 2 – 3 hour interval, from day one of the baby’s life till she is six months old. Naturally this would mean that the mother has to, at times, sacrifice her own sleep, food preferences and leisure in order to feed her baby, whenever and wherever the baby demands it. This fosters a very strong bond between mother and child. The best way to know how much to feed your baby is to ‘feed on demand’. Most new mothers have an apprehension that breast milk will not provide the child enough nutrition but that is a myth. Avoid feeding your baby by the clock. In the first few days after birth, the baby should not be given any other liquids except breast milk. Some families do give water, glucose water, honey, gripe water or formula milk, but this is not safe practice.

If the newborn is so sick that it cannot directly suck at the breast, the mother’s breast milk is expressed and administered through a feeding tube.

Babies cry less when they are carried. Infants who are immediately picked up when they cry show less aggressive behaviour in later years. A sling lets you keep your baby close to you, while still allowing you to carry on with your daily life. Laying your baby on your chest is also an enjoyable experience for your baby and it also regulates her temperature and heart rate.

Sound

A baby responds better to a loving human voice than the music in any toy. So start talking to your baby from day one itself. This also helps to develop his communication skills. A parent or guardian may think that their voice is not good enough to sing lullabies, but your baby only hears your love and affection. Also, for the first few weeks, limit interactions with members from outside the family. This is your special time to get to know your baby better. At every stage, the father should be involved, in whatever way he best can. A study has documented that babies who are bathed by their fathers at least three times a week, have better relationships with them in the later years.

This was first published in the April 2013 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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