Advice for New Mothers by Angelina Steinegger, Postnatal Lead Midwife, Royal Sussex County Hospital

Holding your baby close in the first few hours, weeks and months of their lives is an instinctive nurturing act for most new parents. Early bonding is a beautiful act to do and witness…I see it as the purest form of unconditional love.

Throughout my career as a midwife, bonding and attachment has become a passion of mine. I encourage new parents to hold their baby close, talk to them, and observe their expressions for feeding and general care needs. Many new parents are open to this simple advice…some showing a sense of relief, as they want to hold their baby more, yet others are concerned that their newborn will be ‘spoilt’ by this closeness.

Epigenetics is a relatively new science that explores the ability to enhance and optimize the unique DNA of an individual. The epigenome does not change the individual DNA; its how the unique codes, guided by proteins and compounds, that bind to the DNA are read and expressed that matters, and that these change throughout an individuals life. There are brilliantly succinct videos online; the one on the ‘begin before birth’ website is a favorite of mine.

We now know that the auditory canals of a baby are being developed in the 2nd trimester and that since this time the baby can hear their heartbeat, body sounds and voice and that these are all nurturing for the baby enabling them to settle, rest and sleep. Far from spoiling your baby, holding and talking to your baby will help with settling.  

Here are some other ways I advise parents to help nurture and bond with their baby… and therefore positively enhance their future:

“Observe and listen to your baby and follow their lead”…from birth babies are able to socially interact, they enjoy face to face time and eye contact…in the first few months a parents face is their most cherished toy. By taking time to get to know their baby’s unique expressions and cues, and parents learn, teach and guide each other. Responding positively and lovingly to a newborn’s cues in these early stages promotes positive brain and cognitive development, and in time this will help the child regulate their emotions and enable them to self soothe.

“Hold your baby close…” Babies will feel nurtured by being held. Skin to skin and passes on positive antibodies to boost the baby’s immunity, a sling or simply holding a baby in your arms, all initiate a nurturing relationship which helps to create a secure attachment and can be a protective factor also for the parents wellbeing.

“Talk and sing to your baby…” Each baby listens to the voice of its mother, her body sounds and the world outside the womb since 20-26 weeks pregnant. These familiar sounds soothe them, promote language and cognitive development, emotional wellbeing and create a secure base for positive attachment.

“Massage your baby…” a loving touch is nurturing and comforting for babies. It can help mother and baby both relax whilst enhancing their communication. Gentle stroking or massaging of your baby’s arms and legs is a great place to start.

“Consistency is key…” in these early stages it is of upmost importance for parents, or primary caregivers, to provide and respond to a newborn’s needs. This will enhance and facilitate bonding for everyone, and positive attachment and development between mother and baby. It is natural to include the extended family and close friends when a baby is born, and to use phones and social media to do so. However this should be achieved with consideration as loss of consistency and potential distractions may have a negative impact on a baby’s long-term development and may prune rather than enhance their development.

The neurological activity created by these tender moments, has the ability to serve and ‘hold’ our babies throughout their childhood and for the rest of their lives.  The act of creating a positive attachment to a newborn, and repetition of positive stimuli and experiences, form neurological pathways creating mental health and wellbeing.

A baby’s brain is constantly making new pathways. 250,000 neurons are formed per minute in a fetal brain throughout pregnancy and that proliferation, migration, differentiation, synaptogenesis continue into the toddler years and pruning of these until puberty. Each baby’s personality, body, brain and trans generational inheritance is of course unique and dependent upon their DNA, yet their experiences and exposure to the world around them throughout pregnancy and in early life also all have an effect on them.

I always reassure parents that bonding and attachment is a process of development that takes years to fully form. There is no need to be concerned if this can’t be achieved in the first few hours or days of a baby’s life due to the health needs for parent or baby.

So, it’s not as simple as ‘nature or nurture’… nurturing your baby can affect and enhance their natural state. Maximizing your baby or child’s potential is most parents’ goal, and fortunately the development of complex brain patterns can be achieved very simply with love, nurture and nutrition.

Images from the Holding Time project can be seen on permanent exhibition at the Postnatal Ward, Royal Sussex County Hospital, Brighton.

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