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Recommended reading Prenatal attachment Stages: Pregnancy

Building a connection with baby

Pregnancy is a time for mum and dad to think about the kind of relationship they want with their new baby, their hopes for baby, and what their own childhood was like.

Soon-to-be mums and dads can begin to build an emotional connection to their baby before it’s born.

Mums may differ greatly in when they begin to feel connected to their unborn baby, and in the strength of the connection. An unplanned or unwanted pregnancy, or difficulty in becoming pregnant, may affect how mum feels towards her unborn baby.

Dad may find it harder to build a connection as he doesn’t experience all the physical changes that a mum does. It may also be harder for dads who haven’t consciously chosen to become a father.

Changing roles

Mum and dad will be thinking about their new roles as parents. If they’re first-time parents, they’re transitioning from being sons and daughters to being mothers and fathers. Their relationships with each other, their parents and any older children they have are all changing. In fact, most of mum’s relationships will be changed by her new role.

Helping mum

At no other time in her life will mum go through so much change in such a short time.

With the increased physical and emotional demands of pregnancy, she may become more dependent on the people around her. Although she may have times of feeling excited and happy, she may also feel overwhelmed and uncertain. These are very normal feelings.

Dad, whānau and friends can all help her to have a healthy pregnancy by talking with her, listening and taking on some of her responsibilities. Mum’s relationships with her whānau influence how she feels about her pregnancy.

Helping dad

Dads also face many changes and need a lot of support. They’re adjusting to changes in their partner and changes in their lifestyle, and may have increasing responsibilities as they help mum out and plan the next stage of their life. 

Some dads feel they are not given enough information to prepare them well for their new role. Dad’s relationship with his new baby during the pregnancy and after birth may be strongly influenced by his relationship with his partner. The more satisfying this relationship is, the more likely he is to feel part of the pregnancy and be involved in raising his baby.

This is also a time for dad to reflect on his early experiences. His relationship with his parents can affect his attitudes about how involved he will be as a father. His level of involvement during the pregnancy will affect how mum feels about her pregnancy.

Intergenerational parenting patterns

The way that mum and dad recall their childhood experiences may influence how they connect with their unborn baby.

The quality of their attachment to their own parents affects not only how they connect with baby during the pregnancy, but the type of attachment they’re likely to have with baby after birth.

Often, patterns of attachment continue across generations. However, mum and dad can start to become ‘conscious’ parents — thinking and talking about their own early experiences of how they were parented, things they want to recreate for their baby and things they would like to do differently.

Memories of and dreams about parenting

Based on memories of how they were cared for in their early years, mum and dad are likely to form mental images of what sort of parent they think they will be, who their baby might be and their hopes and dreams for their baby.

Some of their memories may not be consciously recalled, but will still have influenced how they perceive themselves and how they behave in their relationships.

Although their memories and images may not always be positive, being able to reflect on them and make some sense of them will help build a healthy connection to baby before and after birth.

Caring for baby and whānau

Caring for baby in a loving way before birth gives baby the best possible start in life. Mum can do this during the pregnancy by taking good care of herself. This means:

  • eating healthy food
  • exercising
  • staying away from cigarettes, drugs and alcohol, which can harm her unborn baby.

Dad can support her and baby by also having a healthy lifestyle.

It’s also important for mum to keep stress to a low level. Although some anxiety and stress is normal, if mum’s stress is high or lasts for a long time, her stress hormones may cross the placenta and affect developing pathways and stress response systems in her unborn baby’s brain.

Baby’s developing senses

Touch is the first of the senses to begin working in the unborn baby. Mum or dad can touch or massage mum’s belly when she feels baby moving. Baby may feel the touch of hands on mum’s puku, and respond by kicking or changing position. Relaxing and connecting with each other in a loving way may help mum and dad feel calmer.

In the third trimester of pregnancy, baby can hear sounds in the outside world. If mum and dad talk to baby often, baby is likely to recognise their voices after birth and respond to them more than any others.

Mum and dad can also sing to baby. Baby may recognise a song parents sang often during the pregnancy, and be calmed and comforted by the same song after birth. Parents can build on and continue traditions by singing songs and lullabies that were sung to them as babies.

Attending appointments together

Mum and dad can both attend the antenatal and ultrasound appointments. Seeing baby sucking a thumb, yawning, and turning or moving about inside the womb helps their connection with their baby become stronger.

Difficulty adjusting to changing roles

Some parents may find it more difficult to adjust to their changing roles as they approach parenthood. There are a number of experiences that may make it harder for some:

  • teen parenting
  • having parents with a history of mental health issues
  • drug use, trauma or abuse
  • living in poverty or having little social support.

Any parent who is struggling may benefit from professional support.

Summary

  • Parents can begin to build an emotional connection with their baby before birth.
  • Mum and dad’s own early attachment experiences affect how they connect to baby before and after birth.
  • Reflecting on early memories and making sense of them helps mum and dad form a healthy connection with their unborn baby.
  • Dad’s connection to his unborn baby is influenced by the type of relationship he has with his partner and his own experiences of being parented.
  • Smoking, alcohol or drug use and high or ongoing levels of stress can all harm baby’s developing brain.

Further information

Useful facts and information about the effects on baby of drinking when pregnant, in the New Zealand context.

Tips on how to be a conscious parent, from the Australian Childhood Foundation.

Tips for Whānau supporters

For more information, please visit the Tips for whānau supporters page.