Recognise self-protective strategies
Not getting close to your baby may be a protective strategy because it is too painful to think about your baby or the future. You may find it easier to cope by focusing on medical appointments or researching the anomaly. Keeping things at a “thought” level may be preferable because shifting to an “emotional” level feels scary or overwhelming. Our brains do amazing things to protect ourselves and even thoughts of termination or miscarriage can be indicators of you trying to protect yourself and your baby from any potential difficulties.
When we experience trauma or grief, survival mode tends to take over to protect ourselves from further pain and loss. Bonding can be disrupted because the news is unsettling, and this can impact connection not just with your baby but also with your partner and other loved ones.
Babies seek connection
No matter what your baby’s diagnosis is, all babies are born seeking connection. While there may be a lot of practical things to organise, don’t underestimate the role of your relationship with your baby in helping them settle into the world. Feeling connected and loved by their parents helps infants and young children navigate stressful situations now and later in life.
Connecting with baby
Create a ritual that allows you to connect with your baby regularly. This could be 5-10 minutes each day where you take a quiet moment to place your hands on your belly, gently stroke or massage it, or talk to your baby. You may like to sit in the baby’s nursery and read to your baby, play music, sing or journal. Intentional acts of connection help create a special space for you and your baby to bond.
Preparing for your baby
For some parents, it can be too difficult to sit in the nursery or to continue with the usual celebratory milestones, such as baby showers. There are many ways to prepare for your baby. Buying or washing baby clothes, packing your hospital bag for delivery, preparing and freezing meals for yourself and stocking up on the things you need in the house. If thinking too far into the future leads you into a spiral of worry, focus your energy on the present and your growing baby. Think of the things they will need in the very early days; blankets, clothes, nappies and you.
Welcoming a new baby can be a hectic time, even without the added uncertainty that comes with a prenatal diagnosis. One way to support bonding is to help yourself prepare. Bonding isn’t just about the baby, it’s also about you and your transition to welcoming this new baby into your life. The typical pregnancy milestones and celebrations help expectant parents with this transition. You can absolutely celebrate your baby’s milestones. Your baby may have a diagnosis, but they are still your baby who may inspire and amaze you. If the usual celebrations and milestones are too difficult, you can create new ones – new celebrations and milestones that feel right for you and your family.
Preparing yourself may include spending time doing things that you enjoy, finding support or getting that massage! Strategies to reduce your own stress, will help you create more space for bonding with your baby.
You may also wish to spend time learning more about the diagnosis and local support services. Finally, in preparing yourself, it can be helpful to remember that you will grow with your baby. You may not know what is ahead, but you will navigate it together.
Talk to your baby (in utero and beyond)
From five months gestation, your baby can hear your voice and at birth will recognise your voice and other loved ones like another parent and their siblings.
Speak to your unborn baby by sharing stories, singing lullabies or simply talking to them as you go about your day. Your voice will be recognised and of comfort to your baby. It helps create a sense of familiarity and fosters an emotional connection.
When your baby is born, life may be different than you expected. You can still talk to your baby about what you’re doing (“I’m changing your nappy”) or what they are doing (“Oh you’re looking at the light”), this approach helps your baby build a connection with you and the world around them.
Good mums and dads can have “bad” thoughts
Know that you are a “good enough” mother or father. The “good enough mother” was a concept coined by paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott in 1952 to acknowledge a baby’s need for a good enough mother, not a perfect mother.
You are not a bad mother opr father if you have negative thoughts about your baby, if you wished you would miscarry or considered a termination. These thoughts often come from a place of self-protection and protection of the baby. These thoughts arise because it is a complex, and sometimes traumatic situation you find yourself in.
Bonding takes time
Even for parents who aren’t expecting a baby with an anomaly, building a connection takes time. You will learn and grow alongside your baby, you have already possibly started changing. Many parents who have received a prenatal diagnosis find they can look back and see how they have grown, and how the diagnosis made them think about what is truly important and what it means to be a good mother or father.
Even when things are difficult or family life looks very different to others, there can be love, inspiration and hope. There will still be very typical moments of connection and parenting. For some parents, connection and a feeling of “superpowers” to bond and nurture baby may be instant at birth and for others, it may take longer. There is no rule for this, every family is unique.
When to seek help
If you are having difficulties bonding due to guilt, shame, anxiety or depression, it can be helpful to talk to a perinatal mental health professional. It may be an indicator that the trauma or grief runs deep, and you have a genuine need for professional support during this difficult time. Speaking with a professional can help you process and understand your thoughts and feelings and find ways to connect with your baby.