Before having a child, it’s impossible to truly understand the depth of love you will feel for your newborn bundle of joy. When my husband and I had our first daughter, the doctor handed her to me and, as crazy as it sounds, I literally felt my heart stretch and grow a brand-new part, reserved just for her. When I was pregnant with our second daughter, my mom-friends promised me that I would experience the exact same thing. New baby equals new space in my heart just for her.
However, she was our rainbow baby, and I had unintentionally steeled my heart for another potential loss. The doctor handed me our beautiful daughter and I felt…slightly detached. Then confused. Then I felt disappointed with myself, and then guilty. Where was that glowing, growing wonderful heart feeling from the first time? I felt like I had failed in some primal way. No one had ever warned me that this could happen, much less that this can be completely normal.
Understanding the Feeling
Like so many pregnancy-related issues, such as miscarriage and the breast vs bottle battle, mothers who do not feel an overwhelming and immediate love for their newborns are left to grapple with these feelings alone. But, you are not alone! You are okay. You are normal.
“I think this phenomenon is pretty common amongst women who’ve had traumatic birth experiences such as prolonged labor, being overly medicated due to complications, etc.” shares local pediatrician Amber Denham. “In these instances, it’s often more short lived. Sometimes, just reassuring the new mother that it’s normal to have felt overwhelmed or numb when the baby came helps her to move past that feeling of guilt. More extended problems with mother-newborn bonding are often due to depression (postpartum or chronic), illness of the child, social stressors, or challenges with family dynamics.”
Reaching Out for Help
Resources for new moms will vary based on the underlying issue. A mom’s obstetrician can be a good resource for depression, if medication is needed. The neonatal intensive care unit at the hospital also has resources available.
Before discharge, many hospitals will have a social worker check in on the new mom and baby. I remember this happening with both of our daughters. I remember feeling incredulous when she came in with our first baby. Who could not love their new screaming, pooping, acid-refluxing bundle of exhaustion? With our second daughter, I was too ashamed to admit that I was struggling. I was already a mom; I felt like I was supposed to know what to do and how to do it. I wonder now what could have happened if I’d been able to admit to myself, and to the social worker, that I was struggling.
Counseling can be very helpful for new moms struggling to make a heartfelt connection with their newborns. Local mental health counselor Tara Dixon points out that giving birth is a very high anxiety life experience. “Anxiety prohibits us from truly connecting with others, including newborn babies. Many mothers have a birth plan and have imagined this day over and over again with a planned outcome. If the mother’s internal script is overwritten by medical complications, it is very traumatic for both the body and the brain. New moms need to allow time for their psyche to adjust,” she says.
Incorporating baby into mindfulness exercises that are used to decrease anxiety are also helpful, Dixon shares. One exercise she likes to use with new moms is utilizing all five of mom’s senses. She encourages moms to actively identify one thing they can smell, hear, taste, touch, and see regarding the baby. Moms can also engage in breathing exercises with the baby on her chest. Dixon reminds new mothers to note basic human connectors such as looking into the baby’s eyes and touching skin-to-skin. She also notes that some mothers do go through these
motions, but the feeling can take more time. She encourages moms to go through the motions with the physical until the emotional brain can take over and invest.
Even the most experienced moms can feel a postpartum disconnect. Some moms are able to connect with their infants in a few days, some not for months. The important thing for the new mom to know is that she is not a bad mother. This phenomena of not love at first sight is not uncommon, does not lead to negative parenting outcomes, and can be identified and helped with proper intervention. If you or someone you know is experiencing this distressing feeling, you don’t have to feel alone. Reach out. Call a friend, a counselor, your OB/GYN, or your new baby’s pediatrician. You can do this, mama!