Ask DadPad, Attachment and Bonding

Ask DadPad: How can I start bonding with my baby before birth?

Posted on 16th June 2023

This year’s Infant Mental Health Awareness Week, happening this week, has the theme of ‘Bonding before birth’.  As bonding is a key topic for all expectant and new dads, we wanted to find out more about the ways in which dads can attempt to form a bond with their baby during pregnancy, and also why it’s important.  To help us – and you – learn more, we spoke to Morag Wolf, a Health Visitor working within the Thriving Together Cornwall team, which is a relatively new mental health service, looking to support infants and children aged 0 to 5 years in the county, together with their parents and guardians.  We also made reference to a fab book on all aspects of modern fatherhood, The Life of Dad, by Dr Anna Machin, plus other online publications from Anna.

Before we get started, though, it’s helpful to remind ourselves what we mean by ‘bonding’ and ‘secure attachment’, two terms which are often used interchangeably but which are equally important in ensuring the best emotional start in life for babies and children.  We’ve looked at these topics in detail in previous blog posts, including Infant Mental Health and the importance of secure attachment and How do I bond with my baby?, but a useful reminder (from the former blog post) is as follows:

One of the best things that we can do as parents, then, is to work to ensure that our children experience a positive relationship and secure attachment with us, as their primary caregivers, from the very beginning of their lives. Attachment is the link – or bond – that is experienced between a baby and its parents or caregivers.

We started, then, by asking Morag to explain a little more about why secure attachment is such a crucial thing to happen between a parent and their baby/child…

The way your baby builds these close relationships and attachments with those around them – you, your partner and your family – lays the foundations for baby to feel safe and secure.  Babies are totally dependent on those who care for them to keep them safe.  When you give your baby responsive care and lots of attention, it will help them manage their feelings and have safe and healthy relationships in the future.

As Morag points out, the good news is that – perhaps contrary to historic views – both mum and dad are more than capable of each forming their own bond with their baby, albeit in slightly different ways.  Anna Machin explains [pp153-4, The Life of Dad]:

Fathers build deep, profound bonds with their babies that… can be fundamental to the survival and success of their child.  However,… beyond changes in his natural baseline levels of oxytocin and testosterone, fathers do not experience the extreme physiological changes associated with pregnancy and childbirth that gives mothers a head start in the bonding game… [Instead, dad] must fall back on his physical and verbal interactions with his child to provide the neurochemical kick-start that is required for the all-important bond to form.

Given this difference in circumstances regarding the way in which mum and dad each form their bond with their baby, it might then seem that bonding before birth is something only for mums.  This is not the case, however, and Dr Machin – referencing research by John Condon of Flinders University, Australia – has provided a helpful summary of how dads can get working on forming a bond with their baby during pregnancy.  She says [p37, The Life of Dad]:

Much of the prenatal bond between father and child is down to the dad’s imagination and hard work; picturing your child and future relationship, seeking opportunities where you can to interact with your partner’s baby bump and taking the time to consider the sort of dad you want to be.

This, then, requires dads to start ‘day-dreaming’ about their baby, imagining perhaps what baby will look like, and who they will take after, in both looks and personality, as well as the future relationship that the two of you might have together is a key step in starting to build that bond.  Morag told us a bit more about this point, and how dads can start to build their pre-birth bond:

Spending time talking about your unborn baby will help with bonding.  You may spend the coming months wondering how your baby is growing and developing.  You may be curious about the colour of their eyes, or whether they can hear you.  This early curiosity, which helps you to visualise your unborn baby and hold them in your mind, is known as mentalising.

Alongside picturing and visualising your future child, other factors which Dr Machin highlights as having an impact on your ability to build a good bond with your baby include the relationship that you have with your partner/baby’s mum and also your thoughts on what ‘being a dad’ means – are you wanting to be an ‘involved dad’ and, if so, what will that look like for you and your partner?

These two points are more great reasons to spend as much time as you can with your baby’s mum during pregnancy, chatting together about your thoughts and expectations regarding parenting together; now is a great time, if you’ve not already done it before, to share details about your own childhoods, your individual expectations about the role each of you should and could perform within your new family unit, and other thoughts around parenting.  If there are elements of ‘being a dad’ which worry you, for example, try talking them through with your partner – maybe you don’t think you had a good dad-role-model as a child, and are concerned that you won’t know what to do with your baby as a consequence of this; perhaps you’re worried about having to take on responsibility as ‘the breadwinner’ for the family now that you are becoming a father; or it might be that you’re uncertain about how your partner plans to feed your baby…

All these, and lots more, are crucial things to discuss with your baby’s mum, so you can hopefully build a really strong relationship and also help you to each overcome any worries that the other might be having about the role that each of you will be taking on once baby is born. And, as noted above, as well as solidifying your bond with your partner, you’ll also be doing things that will help you bond with your baby, too.

You might also want to talk about your expectations and your worries with those around you.  Again, you’re further solidifying your baby in your head – you’ll probably start automatically ‘picturing’ them whenever you start a conversation about your unborn child – but you’re also gaining more ‘intelligence’ on what it means to be a dad.  Close friends and family who are already dads will be good sources of ‘what it’s really like’; they might have some useful advice on what worked for them; and they might also be able to reassure you about some of the things that are worrying you.

Finally on this point, don’t forget that the midwives and other healthcare professionals caring for your partner and baby during pregnancy are also there to talk to you, too, so don’t be afraid to reach out to them if you’re worried about anything.  They will undoubtedly have heard your concern before, from other expectant fathers, so don’t worry about ‘looking silly’ – and they’ll also be aware of how important your role is, so they’ll be looking to support you in any way they can.  With any luck, they’ll also have given you either your own copy of a DadPad and/or information on how to access the DadPad app for your area, so you can find out more information to help you through those first all-important days, weeks and months of new fatherhood.

Another way of starting to build a bond with your baby is to talk – and maybe even sing – to your partner’s bump.  Again, this will be another way that you are visualising your baby, which will help your bond, but it will also work the other way, too, as Morag explains:

Your baby can hear from at least 16 weeks of pregnancy, and perhaps even earlier.  And, whilst babies hear their mother’s voice most clearly, anyone can talk and sing to them – your baby will love to hear from their dad.  This will help your baby get to know your voice and mum’s voice, all of which will help them feel safe and secure, as well as tuning up their hearing to get them ready for when they will eventually talk.

Research also shows that, when you talk to your baby in the womb, you are doing more than just building a connection; you are also laying the foundation for their social and emotional development.  These one-way conversations will also boost language and memory skills down the road.  So do make sure that you are talking to your baby on a regular basis. 

One of the many dads that Dr Anna Machin has spoken to over the years was quoted in The Life of Dad in relation to pre-birth singing, and his story is an inspiring one for any expectant dad that might still need convincing of the value to be gained by speaking or singing to your baby in the womb.  Ben, dad to Rosie, shared [p32, The Life of Dad]:

When my wife was pregnant with Rosie, I would sing ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ to her.  When she was born, as soon as she was up on mum’s tum, the umbilical cord still attached, I sang ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ and instantly she recognised it, and that was one of those moments that will always be with me.

In an article on the NCT website, Dr Machin further suggests that these ‘bump conversations’ could involve reading to your baby, sharing your favourite music with them, or sharing your hopes. You might also want to “tell your baby about your dreams and aspirations for them, and what you might do together”.

Alongside speaking or singing to your baby (and, of course, provided that baby’s mum is happy and comfortable for you to do so), take time to also physically connect with the baby bump by touching and holding it.  This will enable you to feel baby kick and move around, all of which should help baby feel more ‘real’ to you, and which again will help you start to actively imagine them as an individual.

Our final suggestion here on bonding before birth with your baby is to – wherever possible – attend every antenatal scanning appointment with your baby’s mum. Another of the dads that Dr Machin spoke to commented on the benefits that viewing the scan brought them [p30, The Life of Dad]:

I think the scan was the first time I began to believe it.  Not that I didn’t believe it before, but the scan gave me the reassurance that it was real. Knowing for the first time, seeing the evidence on the screen, it was brilliant. Incredible. I was amazed, elated, incredulous.

We’ll end with a last reminder – firstly from the Thriving Together Cornwall team and then from Dr Anna Machin – as to why putting in the effort to build that bond with your baby is so worthwhile:

TTC: Early experience shapes the brain, affecting lifelong health, behaviour and learning.  A secure, warm, responsive and predictable relationship between infant and caregiver(s) is crucial to emotional, physical and cognitive development.  Infant and early childhood mental health (from birth through to age five) is influenced by primary relationships and the social environment.  

AM: …do not doubt that your attachment to your child is crucial to their wellbeing and mental health for all their life. Children can achieve anything as long as they truly believe that you are there to return to, their secure and loving base.



References and further reading:

Machin, A (2018) The Life of Dad – The Making of the Modern Father. Simon & Schuster UK Ltd; London.

Machin, A (2019) How can dads bond with their baby? (online)

Machin, A (2019) The Power of Attachment. (online)

Thriving Together Cornwall website and Parent Information Leaflet