Bonding with an Unborn Child

One mom's unusual journey can help other expectant moms feel closer to their baby

Throughout the ages, mothers have been thrilled to feel the first gentle “butterfly kicks” of their unborn child. With those gentle ripples, a baby goes from dream to reality.

Babies begin bonding with their mothers long before birth, too. Around 24 weeks, the baby’s brain begins building its auditory center and collecting low-frequency sounds, such as the mother’s heartbeat and the melody of her voice. After birth, babies can differentiate between the vowel sounds of their native language and the sounds in foreign languages — and they recognize Mom’s voice, too.

Just as the baby bonds with his or her mother by listening to her heartbeat, mothers can often feel bonded by listening to the baby’s heartbeat.

Mother-baby bonding doesn’t always go as hoped, however. A recent survey of 2,000 mothers in Great Britain showed that the majority didn’t feel like “natural mothers” after their child’s birth. Nearly a third reported that they felt like they were failing to live up to their roles.

For those moms who adopt or care for children other than those they personally carried, the bonding experience can be even more difficult.

Denise Bartley, an artist and mom of five in Mapleton, Utah, found the bonding experience between mother and child a little more complicated. Because of health issues, Bartley was unable to carry her children herself. All five of her kids were carried by surrogates, and she sometimes felt saddened she couldn’t experience their first kicks or feel their fetal hiccups.

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Still, she took other measures to bond with her children — some of which can be helpful to other moms struggling to bond with their babies.

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Attend the birth mother’s sonogram appointments and listen for fetal heartbeats. 
Just as the baby bonds with the mom by listening to her heartbeat, mothers can often feel bonded by listening to the baby’s heartbeat. The first time Bartley heard the fetal heartbeat of her own children, she felt a surge of affection and excitement. Bartley was at home in Utah, her husband was traveling in New Jersey, and her surrogate was at the doctor’s office in Washington, D.C. The doctor played the heartbeat over the phone — and despite the miles, Bartley felt an immediate connection to her first set of twins, a boy and a girl.

The special circumstances of her kids’ gestations meant Bartley was able to attend the sonograms. During the most recent surrogacy, she remembers a special moment during a late-trimester sonogram. The baby girl, her youngest daughter, “just turned her face toward us and blinked,” Bartley told LifeZette. For mother and father, this short but meaningful experience helped them appreciate the small life that would soon come home with them.

Let the nesting begin.
Getting everything ready for the babies also proved an important bonding experience for Bartley. Two of her surrogacies resulted in twins, so she had a lot of preparing to do. “I felt like a bird — more twigs, more twigs!” she said, laughing.

Nesting proved an essential visualization opportunity. “I couldn’t carry the baby, but I could make our home ready. And it helps you think forward to what is going to happen,” she said. “It’s a kind of future visualization. You visualize your goal and how you’re going to do it.” In getting everything ready for the infants, Bartley pictured them, imagined their cries, thought about holding them, and made sure everything was cozy and in place.

Challenges can be alleviated by a strong, loving bond with your baby.

This visualization can prove a powerful psychological tool.

Psychologists use visualization in sports psychology and in treating post-traumatic stress disorder, helping people shape their expectations in a way that fits closer with reality — and vice versa.

Celebrate the baby’s life now.
Sadly, couples must sometimes celebrate the shortened lives of their children. Jenna Gassew and Dan Haley of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, learned their first boy would be born with anencephaly, a condition that causes the brain to be malformed. During the last months of the pregnancy, they took their little boy, in utero, to concerts and traveling adventures. They sang to him every night.

Related: Unborn Twin Comforts the Other

He was born on Oct. 9, 2014, at 2:25 a.m. and lived only four hours — but his parents still celebrate his short life and rejoice in the bond they felt with him.

The jump into parenthood can be a tough one, replete with challenges. But some challenges can be alleviated by a strong, loving bond with your baby. Regardless of the circumstances of your child’s entrance into the family — adoption, surrogacy, or natural birth — it is possible to feel a strong connection with your baby well before delivery.

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