Mother and Baby

How to bond with your baby: an age by age guide

The moment you first bond with your baby is unforgettable – whether it’s during pregnancy, the first time you lay eyes on her, or months later when you’ve got to know each other.

"The bonding process actually starts before birth," says Dr Vanessa. "As your baby’s senses develop in the womb – with a sense of touch beginning to form after eight weeks; taste at 14 weeks and hearing at 16 weeks – those physical sensations start to build a connection between you."

This bond can be boosted during labour, when your brain releases massive amounts of the ‘love hormone’, oxytocin, which acts like a natural ‘bonding agent’, connecting mother and baby.

But whenever you first feel that bond, these early ties can be built on and strengthened at any age.

Here’s how to create a secure attachment that will last a lifetime…

In this article:

0-3 months

3-6 months

6-12 months

One-two years

Two-three years

0–3 months

"When your baby is first born, the only way she can make sense of the world is through her senses," says Dr Vanessa.

"She is focused on what she feels"

So, if your baby is thirsty, or if her nappy is full and uncomfortable, she will feel upset. And when her needs are met, she’ll feel secure.

"One of the ways you will build bonds with your baby when she’s under a year old is by responding quickly to her needs," says Dr Vanessa.

"Doing this consistently helps your baby to develop the expectation that you will look after her. It builds trust."

Researchers at the University of York have discovered that parents find it easier to pick up on what their babies want when they start thinking of their babies as people with minds of their own – rather than as little creatures that just need physical care.

Starting to imagine what your baby might be focusing on and experiencing seems to help you tune into her needs more quickly.

You can also…

Talk:

Research from the University of North Carolina shows that even tiny babies – less than three days old – already show a preference for their mother’s voice over any other voice.

"It’s instinctive for parents to use a melodic, higher-pitched, slower way of speaking when they talk to their baby," says Dr Vanessa.

"This is called “motherese” and it’s better at engaging babies’ attention than standard speaking." So, if you find yourself staring at your youngster and saying, ‘Who’s my gorgeous baby?’ over and over in a tone that you wouldn’t use to any other person on Earth… go for it!

Sing:

Singing also encourages babies to look and listen, plus it’s been shown to help reduce stress.

And in 2018 researchers from UCL found that mums who sing to their babies at this age feel a greater sense of bonding than mums who don’t sing to their babies.

Look at her while she’s feeding:

"When you hold your baby in your arms while she’s feeding, she’s at the perfect distance from you to be able to look at your eyes," says Dr Vanessa.

"When you spend this time looking and smiling at her, you’ll both sense – and strengthen – the connection between you."

Make time for skin-to-skin cuddling:

When your baby is first born, her sense of touch is the most highly developed of all her senses.

When she feels your skin against hers, she can feel you and smell you, which promotes bonding.

Rock your baby:

Babies get used to being gently rocked when they’re in the womb because as you move, they gently swish in the amniotic fluid!

"Rocking is a deeply primal movement that comforts your baby and helps to build a sense of security and connection," says Dr Vanessa.

"You’ll probably find yourself swaying sometimes when you’re holding your baby – it’s an instinctive rocking motion that we all do."

Copy your baby:

Interacting with your baby is a tried-and-tested way to build a connection with her.

"We all want to be seen and heard," says Dr Vanessa.

"And we need interaction to feel that. It’s never too early to start showing your baby that you’re paying attention to her.

You can do that in simple, gentle ways – like making eye contact, blinking when she blinks, or sticking your tongue out when she sticks her tongue out.

"And once she starts smiling, which will happen when she’s around six weeks old, just smile back at her," says Dr Vanessa.

"You’ll both get a big rush of bonding oxytocin!"

3-6 months

"When your baby was tiny, she may have been happy to be held and cuddled by lots of different people, but you may find that this changes when she’s between four and five months old," says Dr Vanessa.

"That’s because she’s developing a sense of who she’s connected to. You’re her tribe – and she wants to be comforted by you.

That doesn’t mean you have to be the only person to do anything for your baby, or the only person who can hold her, but it’s important to be aware that she wants that time with you, so try to give her as much one-to-one time as you can."

You can also…

Recite nursery rhymes:

"Babies learn through repetition," says Dr Vanessa. "As they become familiar with something, they begin to understand it – and that helps them to develop and navigate their way through the world.

The wonderful thing about nursery rhymes is that they’re short and melodic, so they can become familiar quickly.

Plus, it’s easy to add baby-friendly movement into nursery rhymes.

You can stand up and sit down during The Grand Old Duke of York or open and close your hands during Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.

If you always sing and do the movements, your baby learns to expect them – so when you do them, you’re fulfilling her expectations of how the world works.

And that simple act – fulfilling her expectations – builds the connection and trust between you, because you are helping to make her world predictable and safe." 

Carry your baby:

Your baby may be a bit bigger now, but she still wants the connection of being physically connected to you.

"Where you can, try wearing her in a carrier, rather than pushing her in a pram," says Dr Vanessa.

Let her lead:

Whether she’s playing with her feet or busy trying to roll from side to side, create a safe environment, stay present and be interested – but let your baby go at her speed.

"When you do this, you’re showing your baby that you believe in her," says Dr Vanessa.

"It’s a gentle way of supporting her development and allowing her to make choices about what she wants to explore."

6-12 months

By the time your baby is eight months old, she will develop a sense of ‘object permanence’ – she’ll understand that things exist even if she can’t sense them around her.

So, for the first time, she understands that you still exist, even if you’re in another room and she can’t hear or see you.

"That can make babies feel insecure," says Dr Vanessa.

"It’s no surprise that it’s around this age that lots of babies start to develop separation anxiety.

They want to be with you all the time. So, a key way to strengthen the bond between you and your baby is to understand how they feel when separation anxiety hits – and to be as kind and reassuring as possible."

That doesn’t mean you can never go to the loo again. But try to find ways of reassuring her when you do leave the room, such as leaving the door open and talking to her.

Stay calm and speak in a reassuring voice when you come back to the room.

Play games that help to teach her about going away and coming back (such as Hide and Seek).

Try to give her lots of cuddles and attention during the day, so that she finds the night-time separation easier to handle.

"If you can build up your baby’s feelings of security when she’s nine to 12 months, it often makes things easier once your baby is aged 12 months plus," says Dr Vanessa.

"What can be tricky is that it’s around nine months that many mothers go back to work and babies are put into childcare." 

However, there are things you can do to help the transition run more smoothly.

"Give your baby things to take to childcare that remind her of you," says Dr Vanessa.

"This could be a piece of muslin that you’ve worn next to your skin so it smells of you or a story you’ve recorded so she can hear your voice. Those things help to bridge the gap between childcare and home."

The other thing that makes a big difference is making sure that it’s you who introduces your baby to her childminder and shows her around the new environment.

"By doing this, you show your baby that you trust the new people and the new places," says Dr Vanessa.

And that helps your baby to trust them, too."

At this age, you can also…

Do baby-led weaning:

With baby-led weaning, you choose what food to give your baby, but you let her decide what to eat and how much to eat.

"You’re showing that you trust her by sitting with her and keeping her safe, but letting her lead the process," says Dr Vanessa.

Answer her babbles:

Babies usually start to say their first words somewhere between 12 and 18 months, but in the months before recognizable words come out, your youngster will understand some of the things you say and will be practicing her vocalisation.

"In other words, there will be lots of babbling!" says Dr Vanessa.

"A simple way to build bonds at this stage of development is just to chat with your child. Listen to her intonations and respond as though she is talking: turn it into a conversation.

"She’ll love the fact that you’re interacting with her – the back-and-forth builds her sense that you see and hear her.

"And the bonus is that you’ll be supporting her speech development."

Let her make choices about crawling:

Most babies start to crawl somewhere between six and 10 months old (although some are earlier, some are later and some bypass the crawling stage altogether).

"When your baby develops a skill like crawling it’s natural to want to encourage her to do it," says Dr Vanessa.

"But it’s also important to remember that sometimes babies won’t want to crawl, because when they crawl they’re moving away from you.

At this age, they may not want to leave you.

So, while it’s fine to encourage her to crawl, balance that by remembering that it’s also OK if she chooses not to. Allow her to make the choice."

Watch her when she plays:

If your baby does start to crawl at this stage then, for the first time, she has the ability to move away from you.

"What you may find is that your baby moves off to play and then glances back to check in on you," says Dr Vanessa.

"She wants to know that you’re still connected. So, watch her. That way, when she glances back you can smile and reassure her."

One-two years

Right now, you are the best thing your baby has ever seen and she wants to be just like you.

"This is the age when your baby will want to imitate everything about you," says Dr Vanessa.

"In fact, she still thinks she is you. Youngsters don’t realise they’re truly separate from their parents until they’re around two years old."

So, between one and two, the best way to build a secure attachment between you both is to foster that sense of similarity.

Buy her a toy phone that she can ‘talk’ into. Let her try on your shoes. Find matching hats to wear.

"You can bring this sense of similarity into all sorts of things," says Dr Vanessa.

"Talk to your youngster about places you both like to go or foods you both like to eat.

"You can read books together and talk about the characters you like. You can smell flowers together and find the scent you like best.

"The key is to celebrate all the positive things you have in common!" 

You can also…

Play!

Forget the chores, get down on the floor and play with your child.

You’ll both laugh, you’ll both fill up with oxytocin and your bond will be stronger than ever.

Go at her speed:

This is the age when your baby starts to walk and turns into a toddler.

A simple way to bond is to go and explore the great outdoors together – at her speed.

Your new walker will regularly stop to explore snails, flowers, birds, other babies. cracks in paving stones, her shoes…

"Let her!" says Dr Vanessa. "And show an interest in the things that she’s interested in. She’s asking you to share her world with you. 

And when you both pay attention to the same thing, it brings you closer."

Carry her:

Even when your baby can walk, there will be times when she gets tired.

So, if she’s asking to be carried, pick her up. "Just because we can do something, doesn’t mean we always want to – and that’s equally true for youngsters," says Dr Vanessa.

"This is a slightly older version of bonding through responding to your child’s needs – it’s showing her that she can still ask for help and get what she needs."

Two-three years 

This is the age when your youngster realises that she is a separate person to you.

"So, what your child really needs when she’s two is a feeling of deep belonging – a sense that although she’s her own person she really belongs to this family," says Dr Vanessa.

"It’s important to nurture that sense of belonging, and a really easy way to do that is to invest in some family rituals.

"If you haven’t already developed your own special way of saying goodnight – now is the time to do it.

"Maybe you always give one another a kiss and then rub noses. Maybe you have a story and a cuddle before you tuck your youngster into bed.

"Maybe you always sing the same lullaby. It’s not what you do that matters, it’s doing the same thing every night so that it’s your family way of saying goodnight."

You can introduce those rituals or family traditions in all sorts of ways.

Your family could always go and have a hot chocolate after you go swimming.

You could always ring grandparents on a Sunday evening. You could always go for a walk before bed.

"By doing things your way, with traditions that your child understands and can join in with, you help to make her feel safe and included," says Dr Vanessa.

You could also…

Honour her choices:

At two, children want to make decisions for themselves. "Whenever it’s safe to do so, let your children make those decisions," says Dr Vanessa.

"You’re having mashed egg and Weetabix for breakfast? Great! You’re wearing a red shoe and a black shoe? Cool!"

"Giving her that autonomy shows that you trust and support her choices."

Help her regulate her feelings:

It’s not until a child reaches between five and seven years of age that they become able to regulate their emotions.

Until then, if their emotions become big and out-of-control, they struggle to calm down by themselves.

"If your child is getting upset or angry, she needs your help to soothe her," says Dr Vanessa.

"It can be hard, but the best thing you can do is to stay firm but kind, set consistent boundaries and be calm."

You don’t have to let your child get her own way.

But you do need to express what’s upsetting your child, so she knows that you understand and acknowledge how she feels.

That understanding builds trust and will help her to regulate her mood.

Later, when she’s calm, it’s helpful to talk about emotions and start teaching your child what the different emotions are, so that she starts to understand differences in her feelings.

Understand her developmental stage:

Language skills can develop a lot between two and three years of age, and if your child is going through a big developmental leap, it can take most of her energy, which can have a negative impact on her behaviour.

"When that happens, your child simply doesn’t have the capacity for behaving in the ways she would at other times," says Dr Vanessa.

"She’s not being deliberately naughty – she’s just putting all of her energy into practicing her language skills. It really helps if you can recognise what’s happening and give her extra cuddles and support." 

Meet the expert: Dr. Vanessa Lapointe is a registered psychologist, author of Parenting Right From the Start and a mum of two.

Written by Katie Masters

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