The midwives number one instructions after giving birth are to stay in bed for three days. Three days without ever getting out of bed except to go to the bathroom. Three days of cuddling, snuggling and smelling your baby. After that is another four days of modified bed-rest (which means you are allowed to move to the couch) for a total of seven days of lying down. I have mentioned this rule to other friends who have given birth and it saddens me when they say that they didn’t know you were supposed to stay in bed and that no one ever told them to. Or even worse is how many women brag about being up and around two days later shopping at Target with their newborn baby. There are other obvious reasons for mandatory bed-rest after delivering a baby besides smelling them – like giving your body the time it needs to heal. I think because hospitals generally discharge you after one or two days women have the misconception that they are recovered. However, these three days are not only a period of necessary healing, but also an intense and critical component of the human existence called bonding. What is bonding? It is easier to describe what promotes it and what hinders it.
You cannot begin a conversation about bonding without first bringing up skin to skin. Skin to skin has been discovered to be such a vital component to the success of a mother and her baby that some hospitals have started campaigns promoting it. Signs all over one maternity ward I toured read, “It’s my birthday, give me a hug.” The most simple explanation for bonding is that since human babies are the only species entirely dependent on maternal care, there is a system hardwired into us that powers on after birth, making even the most non-maternal woman a warm, caring, self-sacrificing entity we call – a mom. Scientists have discovered that in the first hour or two after birth, there is a hormonal surge of oxytocin. This hormone is referred to as the love hormone, which builds up during the end of pregnancy in anticipation for a huge release after birth. Oxytocin levels also increase during love making and even during simple care taking tasks like rocking and diapering a baby. When the mother is in an environment where she can immediately hold her baby after birth skin to skin, the bonding process can begin during a state of maternal hormonal bliss, when her oxytocin levels are at their absolute highest. This also causes her to develop keen maternal instincts, like hearing her baby cry through two closed doors when the baby monitor was accidentally shut off, or while taking a shower (my husband is in awe of this still).
Bonding is just one of several physiological reactions that happen after a woman gives birth and holds her baby in her arms for the first time. If allowed to be placed immediately on the mothers shirtless chest, the baby, who comes from a sterile womb, is instantly colonized with the mother’s bacteria (as opposed to whatever they could be lied down on in a hospital.) Their heart rate, blood sugar and temperature are all regulated, giving the newborn the help it needs to adjust to life outside the womb. If the mother is then encouraged to nurse her baby for the first time within this golden hour, oxytocin levels soar even higher. The higher the levels, the more “maternal” a woman becomes, even making her able to discern the smell of her baby over another. This love hormone is also transferred to the infant through the milk, making it sleepy, calm and comforted. The first activity the midwives prescribe after giving birth is for the mom and baby to take a nice long nap together. This is easily accomplished after the first, long nursing session. Or for some of us, nursing “attempt.”
A good friend of mine once told me that nursing was the best part of motherhood. I have thought about this simple statement a lot and see why it is so true. The best memories I have of my babies are of rocking them in our rocking chair and nursing them, watching them drift off into a dreamy, milky, oxytocin induced sleep. I would not only be rocking and nursing but also stroking their bald, fuzzy heads and of course, smelling them. After they slipped off my breast completely milk drunk, I would stare at their sweet, sweet dreaming face. My eyes would well up with a few tears every time and I cherished that moment, watching them sleep, knowing they wouldn’t be babies forever. I couldn’t imagine motherhood without the deep level of love that I have experienced with the help of my maternal hormones.
There are many obstacles that can come in the way of uniting a mom and baby for the first time after birth. In my case, my placenta refused to come out until nearly two hours later, but some have even worse complications. I think it goes without saying that the most common interference is a C-section. If mom and baby can’t be together there are other “surrogate” options like dad or an adoptive parent.
The thing about bonding is that it is just as important to promote it in the “golden hour” as it is to continue bonding activities for as long as you can still carry your baby in your arms. Even unintentionally the simple acts of feeding and caring for your baby will raise your oxytocin levels. We need to bond and care for our babies continuously in order to get through those sleepless nights that can bring even a Buddhist monk to their breaking point. It is bonding that makes us care about caring for our children.