Whether you just brought your baby home or it’s been a few years, there are many ways to bond with your baby after the NICU. It may feel like you have missed the most crucial and important time in your baby’s life, but I promise you it’s not too late!
As a 2x NICU momma, I know how hard it can be to bond with your baby after such a traumatic season. Truthfully, I thought there was something wrong with me as a mom. I wondered everything from Why can’t I soothe my baby? to doubting my intuition because I was so fearful of doing something wrong.
As I compared my relationship with my daughters to other moms who had children the same age, I began to worry that we may never have a close bond. This fear lead me to so much anxiety, frustration, and even postpartum rage.
Before I share all the ways you can begin bonding with your baby, I want you to know that there is SO MUCH HOPE!
This moment is the beginning of a new chapter for you both. This journey will be full of ups and downs, but you are on your way to true healing.
How to Bond with Your Baby After the NICU
Like I mentioned earlier, I have been a NICU mom twice! (My First Daughter had TTN and my second was diagnosed with a rare heart defect – you can read about her diagnosis here) If I’m being 100% transparent with you, the second time was worse than the first. Not only was my second daughter’s condition more serious, but being in the NICU was incredibly triggering.
I had dreamed about cuddling, nurturing, and loving on my newborn baby, all throughout my second pregnancy. I prayed relentlessly for God to heal my heart and wounds. So as I sat there next to my daughter’s hospital bed, I mourned the relationship, connection, and bond that I had prayed for.
What I didn’t know was that there were SO many things that I could have been doing to help us begin bonding when we came home from the hospital. Now that I’m on the other side, I want to help parents like you repair that bond.
When I was in school to become a Parenting Coach, I learned so much about the nervous system and brain, and how important connection is in those early days. At first I felt a bit defeated because our journey didn’t start out “normal,” but I found so much comfort after learning that our body wants to heal and the brain has the ability to form new connections at any point in our life (which I’ll talk more about later!).
Now a few years later, I truly feel like our bond and connection is stronger than I ever expected it to be.
Anyhow, I will continue to share more of our story throughout this post. I hope that it encourages you and helps you to feel like there is hope!
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1. Meet Their Needs (Emotionally)
This doesn’t mean making sure they are changed, fed, and getting enough sleep. Meeting your baby’s emotional needs could be picking them up when they are fussy, contact napping, or even just making eye contact.
I put this point first because it took me two children to realize that I wasn’t meeting their needs emotionally. I took many of their signals as wants and dismissed what they were feelings.
My oldest was three years old by the time I realized this. I truly felt like I had messed her up for life!!! This couldn’t be further from the truth. Just a month after meeting her needs emotionally, we began to see a HUGE shift in her connection and even behavior!
Examples of How to Meet Baby’s Needs Emotionally:
- Respond to Their Cries with Empathy and Curiosity
- Making Eye Contact
- Baby Wearing
- Hold Space for Their Feelings
- Just Be with Them
You will see many of these examples throughout this post because meeting our baby’s emotional needs is done through physical touch.
For more information on how to show up for your child, I highly recommend the book The Power of Showing Up by Daniel J. Siegel MD and Tina Payne Bryson PhD.
2. Prioritize Co-Regulation
While your baby was in the NICU, it was probably pretty difficult to help them calm down. Most babies are hooked up to machines, which makes responding to our baby’s needs incredibly hard.
Now that you are home, I highly recommend making co-regulation your #1 priority. Until a child is about seven years old, they can not regulate by themselves. In order to form a secure attachment it is crucial that we respond to their cries and help them to calm down.
The more worked up, flustered, and angry we get, the less safe our baby feels. Although we may not be showing these feelings outwardly, they can sense our stress.
Since our NICU babies have endured so much emotional and physical trauma, it’s important that we are doing everything we can to help them to feel safe. We can do this by ensuring that we are meeting their needs.
When a child is consistently having their needs met, their brain is able to re-wire itself. This process is known as Neuroplasticity (read more about it here).
3. Find Your Own Inner Calm
In order to help your baby co-regulate, it’s important to find coping strategies so you can remain calm and centered. This will ensure your baby feels safe, even if they are experiencing BIG emotions.
Finding ways to calm down your nervous system can be tricky, especially if you are trying to help a screaming baby. So, I want to give you a few things that have helped me when I’m starting to feel my blood boil:
- Rinse Hands Under Cold Water
- Step Outside and Take a Deep Breath
- Butterfly Hug
- Dim Lights
One thing that helped me to calm down when our daughter couldn’t stop crying in the night was knowing that my job wasn’t to get her to fall back asleep it was simply to comfort her along the way.
4. Be Available
This may feel like a no brainer, but it was something that I really struggled with. Being available emotionally and physically is really important for your baby. This will help you to build trust and safety with your child.
It may sound simple, but lean into your motherly intuition. Whether that be rocking your baby to sleep, picking them up when they are crying, or simply being present when they are playing on the floor. This will help your child to feel seen, safe, and loved!
5. Play Together
In the early days this may look like making eye contact and smiling, but as they begin to grow you can start to enjoy more interactive play.
Play is a great time for you to get to know what your baby likes… and maybe doesn’t like! My daughters really started to show their personalities around 9 months old. It was so fun to learn about who they were created to be!
6. Contact Naps
Please don’t guilt yourself over contact naps. These are some of the most special moments you get to enjoy with your baby!
Not savoring contact naps has been one of my biggest regrets from my girl’s first year. You will never regret those special snuggles.. I promise.
Letting your baby nap on you is not only beneficial for them, but is also an important part of your role as a mother. If you feel like your baby needs to contact nap, I encourage you to do it!! This is one of intuitive desires to nurture our baby.
With all this being said, if contact naps don’t work for you….. it’s okay!! This is just one of the many ways that you can connect with your NICU baby.
7. Safe Bedsharing
Disclaimer: Be sure to check with your pediatrician and/or team of doctors to ensure this is safe for your baby.
I hesitated on adding this because there is so much controversy over bedsharing with babies. But after doing a lot of research, I followed the safe sleep 7 (read here) and felt comfortable bedsharing with my second daughter who has CHD.
We have bonded SO much since I “gave in” to sleeping together. It’s been a huge part of how we were able to rekindle our relationship.
If I could give you any advice, it would be to listen to your mom gut. It truly knows what’s best for you, your baby, and your family. Learning to trust your instincts after being in the NICU can be hard, so give yourself grace if you are feeling indecisive.
8. Eye Contact
Babies need to know they are seen. This is one of the ways we can connect with them and also will help them to feel known and understood.
One study shows that making eye contact with your baby will synchronize your brain waves! This also helps with a baby’s brain growth.
Like I mentioned earlier, during the newborn phase, this is a form of play! When your little one is alert enjoy someone one-on-one time together talking, singing, and cooing!
9. Physical Touch
After being in the NICU many babies struggle with touch. I didn’t learn about this until my oldest was 3 and it helped me understand why she never liked to be touched. Regaining your child’s trust is an important part of bonding, but also healing from all the trauma.
I encourage you to gently stroke your baby’s arms or legs while they are feeding. Lightly stroking their face or body when they are starting to get sleepy. This helps them to learn that you are going to treat them with love and kindness each time they are touched.
I found this article by Blooming Littles to be very helpful in understanding NICU babies who don’t want to be touched. She also has a course to help you advocate for your NICU Baby (check that out here)
After my daughter with a heart defect was enrolled into a therapy program at 2 months old, they set us up with a therapist who taught infant massage. These classes were so special for me. We were able to bond so much during this time.
If you have PT, be sure to ask about classes for it! But in the meantime, here is a YouTube video about Infant Massage that I found to be really helpful!
This one is pretty obvious so I won’t go into too much detail, but its important to incorporate skin-to-skin as much as you can. Here is an article that explains all the benefits.
I highly recommend doing this while breastfeeding, contact napping, or even taking a bath together!
There are a few different brands out there, but I really love this skin-to-skin shirt by Lalabu!
12. Baby Wearing
Wearing your baby will not only help you to be more productive but will help you to bond more! I highly recommend finding a wrap or baby carrier that you really love.
I ended up getting a Tula Carrier with my second and I’m so glad I made the investment! I have used it so much.
I’ve found that most moms feel like you need to try a few, so if you have friends I highly recommend asking them if you can borrow theirs!
13. Talking with Baby (Sportscasting)
The first time I was introduced to the idea of sportscasting to babies was in one of Janet Lansbury’s podcast episodes. She explained the importance of talking to our baby, explaining what is going on and what we are doing.
This not only helps our child’s brain to develop and learn, but it also helps them to build a strong connection together.
At first it might feel really weird, but I encourage you to try sportscasting during diaper changes. That was the easiest time for me to practice this. Eventually you will begin to explain what’s going on and having “normal” conversation with your child without any thought!
14. Observe Your Baby
I know this seems obvious, but observing your baby is one of the most helpful ways that you can connect with them. It helps you to understand who they are, what they are learning, their likes/dislikes, and so much more!
This can be really hard at first, so I encourage you to do this for just a couple minutes at a time. It can be helpful to set a timer because this will help you disconnect from the world and tunnel vision on your baby.
Tip: Try a technique called tunnel vision. This is where you imagine you have goggles or glasses on that you can ONLY see what’s going on between you and your child. Sometimes I like to think of it as stepping into your child’s world!
15. Breastfeeding for Comfort
After I went through the Balanced Breastfeeding Course (you can read more about it here), I realized that my nursing relationship with both of my girls had be strictly based on nutrition. I felt blessed enough to be breastfeeding because I knew that many mommas in my shoes weren’t able to.
But with that being said, the lactation specialists taught me that I shouldn’t be nursing for comfort because it would create bad habits. Goodness, that was some of the worst advice I was given.
I HIGHLY RECOMMEND breastfeeding for comfort when you can. Offer a feeding when they are fussy, get hurt, or are seeming unsettled! I promise you won’t regret it.
16. Finding Confidence in Your Motherly Intuition
Trust yourself. You were created to be your child’s mother. Even more than that… You were CHOSEN to be your baby’s momma!
You know them best… even though there may be specialists who know the facts and science behind your child’s condition… you know them best.
It’s okay to trust your gut.. intuition… whatever you want to call it! You were given this instinct and it’s so important that you use it.
After bringing your baby home from the NICU, it can feel like you are behind and still have so much to learn about your little one. I hope that these tips on how to bond with your baby after they come home from the hospital help you to create a deep connection.
If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to email me: alexis@BlessOurLittles.com