Accidentally, in love – why advice to ignore your baby does your head in.

You may have heard the term ‘accidental parenting’ which implies that you, the parents, have inadvertently caused (or will cause) your baby to have sleeping difficulties if you encourage ‘bad habits’ such as letting your baby fall asleep  in your arms or not following a strict feeding and sleep routine. 

The truth is, there is no accident about how you feel when your baby calms and dozes in your arms, opening heavy eyelids to meet your gaze then perhaps giving a tiny smile before his eyes fl utter shut again with delicate lashes resting against little pink cheeks, his warm body snuggled next to your own. Nor is it a sign of weakness or indulgence on your part that you can’t resist your baby’s cries to be soothed to sleep. Rather, it is due to what scientists call the ‘chemistry of attachment’.

This is a massive hormonal upheaval that begins during pregnancy, ensuring that you and your baby are chemically primed to fall in love when you meet each other face-to-face or rather, skin-to-skin, at birth. It is nature’s insurance that your baby will signal for exactly the care she needs to grow and thrive and that your strong connection with her will help you understand and meet these needs as she adapts to the world outside the womb.

During the last trimester of pregnancy your body brews a cocktail of hormones, and your pituitary gland, which produces this ‘mummy margarita’, doubles in size and remains enlarged for up to six months postpartum. This means that for as long as six months after your baby is born, your emotional mindset will be irresistibly affected by shifting levels of hormones. This powerful hormonal hangover has such universally intense effects on mothers’ inner lives that it is documented by researchers under a variety of labels including ‘maternal pre-occupation’ and ‘motherhood mindset’. This more intuitive mindset can be quite at odds with our modern lifestyles and often comes as a shock to women who have previously been in a more goal-oriented and solution-focused space prior to having a baby. Now, it seems that control is out the window and logic has left the building, as the skills that used to keep things neat and tidy (literally) are no longer relevant. This is why the baby instruction manual that advised an efficient program of sleep management seemed so sensible while you were pregnant, but now makes you feel like a failure as neither your baby nor you seem able to slot neatly into the prescribed timetable.

If you can appreciate this new, responsive state as nature’s preparation for creating a synchrony between you and the instinctual world of your newborn, you will understand why there is such a struggle between the ‘logic’ of sleep training advice and your urge to respond to your baby.

Two of the major players in this magical baby love potion are prolactin, a hormone that promotes milk production and is often referred to as ‘the mothering hormone’ because of its calming effect that is said to make you more responsive to your baby, and oxytocin, also known as the ‘love hormone’. Oxytocin encourages feelings of caring and sensitivity to others and helps us to recognise non-verbal cues more readily. It is released during social contact as well as during love-making, but the release of oxytocin is especially pronounced with skin-to-skin contact. Oxytocin itself is part of a complex hormonal balance. A sudden release creates an urge towards loving that can be directed in different ways depending on the presence of other hormones. For example, with a high level of prolactin, the urge to love is directed towards your baby.

Breastfeeding is a powerful enhancer of the effects of these love hormones, which are released by both mothers and babies, who produce their own oxytocin in response to nursing. However, physical contact with your baby will also stimulate the release of oxytocin, so if you are bottle-feeding you can chemically boost the bond with your baby if you ‘bottle nurse’ with cuddles and skin contact, rather than prop him up to feed (something you should never do, for safety reasons) or hand him to others.

Fathers, too, can succumb to the influence of these love drugs of family (not just baby) bonding (and you thought you were the ‘voice of reason’, didn’t you?). Men’s bodies are instinctively programmed to respond to their partners’ pheromones, which are steroid hormones made in our skin that emit barely detectable odours. Through closeness with your baby’s mother (and signals from her pheromones), your own oxytocin and prolactin levels rise toward the end of your partner’s pregnancy, and then,when your baby is born, an even greater surge of these hormones occurs when you spend lots of time holding your baby. And so a self-perpetuating cycle begins – close contact with your baby releases your own oxytocin and prolactin and encourages you to become more involved with your child.

Whichever parent you are – and whether you are an adoptive parent or a same sex partner – the more you connect with your baby through touch, eye contact, smell and talking, the stronger your connection will be and the more difficult you will find it to ignore your baby’s signals. And this is exactly as nature intended.

If you are feeling confused about baby sleep advice, creating ‘bad habits’ or wondering, how can I gently encourage sound sleep? See Pinky’s best selling books Sleeping Like a Baby. and Parenting by Heart. 

21 Comments

  1. katepickle Says Reply

    As someone who struggled with attachment issues early on with our twin girls (they were born prem which was just part of our bonding problems) I can’t explain how important this stuff is. Don’t let some ‘baby expert’ rob you of those moments when your children melt your heart, it is just not worth it.

  2. Katherine Says Reply

    Thank you for all that information. It’s great to understand the wonder that is how our bodies respond to parenthood – and the hormones that we are given to promote bonding. I felt like a failure often with my first “High Needs” baby – but as I learned to relax, bond with him and respond to him it healed our relationship and taught me a new way to parent. I wish I’d discovered you back then!!

  3. Elissa Helberg Says Reply

    When talking to mothers as a breastfeeding counsellor you invariably get the one who has a friend who’s baby magically puts itself to sleep in its cot.(and of course it’s always the breastfeedings fault their baby doesn’t- or so they are told.) I have had 4 babies and none of them ever even considered it, and i couldn’t let them. Instead I have all these great tactics to put a baby to sleep, rocking,singing,humming,jiggling and walking them to boredom. Now to the mothers who’s babies only sleep in their cots i wonder how on earth they get anything done, how do they get shopping done etc when they are chained to the cot for naptime? My baby sleeps everywhere while I bank,shop,do school stuff and he is now 1 and will sleep anywhere. I have breasts for drugging him, sling for wearing him down and lots of places to go, why would I want him to always sleep in a cot?

    • Danielle Says Reply

      Not all babies sleep easily on the go like yours. My baby at only 2 mths would wake within 5mins of entering a store. Some babies are more relaxed others more easily distracted. My baby also never sat in a stroller or shopping cart either (she could get out of any child restrain belt and was a fall hazard. I did babywear a bit but even that didnt work great gor us because she wanted to face out – next child I’m investingbin an ergo but I have my Moby and a wonderful ring sling now.

    • Kat Says Reply

      Couldn’t agree more. Well said!

    • Jo Walsh Says Reply

      Elissa, reading this just made me day!! I love everything that you wrote. My bub is only 5 months old and I am staying true to my beliefs about showing her touch, comfort and bring there for her when she cries. I have been getting a lot of people telling me to sleep train lately but I know what I am doing is right and she is going to grow into a strong, healthy, affectionate and flexible young lady.

  4. Sue Painter Says Reply

    I’ve always only half-jokingly said that some women I know have lost their brains after having a baby. Now I know the scientific background and it seems I was not far from wrong!

  5. Lisa Manyon Says Reply

    Wow — that is interesting. I do believe (although far from an authority) that parenting is a natural instinct for many and just like marketing, I don’t think cookie cutter solutions work for all parenting situations.

    Write on!~

    Lisa

  6. Laura Hollick Says Reply

    I love the way you write Pinky!

    “brewing a cocktail of hormones, so you and your baby will fall in love”

    wouldn’t it be amazing if we could create these hormones at will and fall in love with all aspects of life.

    I’m ready for a mommy margarita!

  7. Get Clear Goals with Lynn Moore Says Reply

    This is amazingly interesting Pinky! Such wonders Mummy Nature performs for us and we aren’t even aware of them. I think the lesson is the trust Her, use common sense and know that what works for one baby won’t necessarily work for another. Remember Dr. Spock?! He was the authority my parents followed. Thanks for a great article.
    Lynn

  8. linda Jones Says Reply

    I didn’t know all these chemical reactions are going on. I’ve never had a baby, so I’m pretty clueless about this stuff. Very interesting how it all works exactly as planned.
    Linda

  9. Terry Monaghan Says Reply

    As always, love the post. Such simple information…

  10. Katherine C. H. E. Says Reply

    Wow, Pinky! That is really fascinating — and explains a LOT about what was going on at the end of my pregnancy and after my son was born. Oh, my what contradictory information and advice was hurled at me!! I finally did just what you suggest — tuned into my son and tuned out the “noise” from others. You ROCK to share this supportive message. Thank you, Pinky! XO, Katherine
    Life Blossoming Systems

  11. Debbie McNeill Says Reply

    Very interesting information Pinky. I found the information about fathers reactions surprising. I can’t wait to share this information with an expecting father that I know.

  12. Phil Dyer Says Reply

    Fascinating article, Pinky. It is really cool to understand the science behind this! Thanks for sharing…

    Phil

  13. Mitch Tublin Says Reply

    Pinky,
    Good to hear the full story. I just thought the baby was saying “Cant a dude get a hug?” A warm and fuzzy story especially with your photo choices, Thanks, Mitch

  14. Leanne Kelly Says Reply

    Thanks so much for encouraging parents to follow their instincts. I feel so sad when I hear people saying that you should never let babies fall asleep on you etc. There is no feeling on earth more wonderful than having your baby sleeping on you is there! They’re only babies for such a short time, I don’t want to waste it by putting them in bed!

  15. Kevin Kearney Says Reply

    As a father bonding with my son falling asleep on me played a huge part to how close we are now, he is two in August and just the other he was looking in an album and he kept pointing to two pictures of him in the early months asleep on me and so the next couple of days when I was putting him down for a nap he wouldn’t go down in the bed he climbed up just like he was in the early months and he smashed his record for his longest nap he sleep for just short of four hours and I felt so happy to have moments like that!! I do want to add that Ben is very sociable, playful, loving boy and we put that down to natural normal parenting and not parenting like we are looking after a stuffed toy!

  16. Trish Says Reply

    Hi Pinky, thanks for posting this! Though do you have any advice you can point me to if my 4.5 month old always wakes after 20 minutes?

    The link to your Baby Sleep Seminars “Sleep, Love and Your Baby’s Brain” seems broken unfortunately.

    Thanks in advance!

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