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In the first three months of life (the "fourth trimester"), your tiny baby has a big job: transitioning from a snug and solitary womb to a world of sensory stimulation and new relationships. But babies can only survive and thrive with help from their parents.
Fortunately, babies are born with the ability to unlock emotional and physical responses in you. Those responses motivate you to connect with and care for your child.
Here's a look at how hormones actually help you fill your role as a mother or a father to your very young baby.
New-mom hormones: Oxytocin and prolactin
Your baby is here. Levels of the hormones progesterone and estrogen in your blood – so necessary for pregnancy – take a dive, and oxytocin and prolactin levels rise. This tells your body that your baby is starting life as a separate person who needs you to provide love, warmth, and food.
Oxytocin: the love hormone
Skin-to-skin contact, eye contact, holding, cuddling, and breastfeeding your newborn all trigger the release in you of oxytocin (the "love" hormone).
Oxytocin helps you build a strong emotional attachment with your baby. And it can help get you through the early, challenging days with your baby, when round-the-clock feeding can seem overwhelming and sleep deprivation starts to take its toll.
A few days after giving birth, as the joy and elation of bringing your new baby into the world begins to fade, you may suddenly feel tired, upset, and weepy. You're probably experiencing a common condition called the baby blues.
The baby blues are caused, in part, by a sudden huge dip in the hormones that you needed during pregnancy. As your body adjusts to these physical changes, the awareness of your new responsibilities as a mom may hit you at the same time. It may feel emotionally overwhelming.
Oxytocin can help you through the baby blues – which last anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks – and ease anxiety with its feel-good effects.
(Baby blues are not the same as postpartum depression (PPD), which can affect dads as well as moms and doesn't go away by itself.)
Prolactin: the milk-making hormone
Prolactin stimulates your breasts to produce nutrient-rich colostrum right after your baby is born – and then, after two or three days, milk in greater quantities.
Every time your baby nurses, the pituitary gland in your brain releases more prolactin, along with oxytocin. These two hormones send the message to your breasts to make as much milk as your baby needs. Oxytocin and prolactin may even help to encourage maternal feelings in you and cope with the daily routine of caring for your baby.
If you're not breastfeeding, your levels of prolactin will soon fall to normal pre-pregnancy levels. But you can benefit from the highs of oxytocin during bottle-feeding sessions as you hold your baby, make eye contact, and sing and talk to him.
New-dad hormones: Up with oxytocin, down with testosterone
The more time you can devote to caring for your baby during the fourth trimester, the better. Cuddling and caring for your new son or daughter from day one helps create a strong and rewarding relationship.
In fact, studies show that the more time and energy you put into the practical side of taking care of your new baby – from diaper changing and feeding to getting up during the night – the more quickly you'll bond with your child and the more likely you are to enjoy fatherhood.
Trust, sensitivity, and bonding hormones
According to the U.K.-based Fatherhood Institute (a "fatherhood think-and-do tank"), just holding your baby has important hormonal effects:
- Within 15 minutes of holding a baby, the levels of hormones associated with tolerance/trust (oxytocin), sensitivity to infants (cortisol), and brooding/lactation/bonding (prolactin) rise.
- The more experienced the man is as a caregiver, the faster and stronger these hormonal changes happen.
So if you're feeling more emotional than usual after the birth of your baby, you can be sure it's completely normal.
Investing as much time as you can in physically caring for your baby gives you a chance to build a bond with your newborn and support your partner as you learn to be new parents together. Hormonal changes in your body make it easier for you to adjust to your role as a dad and an ally to your partner.
A U.S. Department of Labor policy brief states that children of fathers who are more engaged with them have better developmental outcomes, including fewer behavior problems and better cognitive abilities and mental health.
After your baby is born, your testosterone levels fall temporarily. Reduced testosterone, coupled with higher levels of oxytocin, makes you more open to bonding with and being sensitive to the needs of your baby and your partner.
These feelings of being at one with your baby and partner can help you to cope better with the challenges of the fourth trimester. Lack of sleep and a crying baby, typical of the first three months of parenthood, can put a big strain on you – especially if you go back to work and your partner stays at home, doing most of the baby care.
Bonding tips for dads
- Feel the love: Holding, carrying, reading out loud – treat your baby like a human being who wants to get to know you. Find a baby carrier that fits you for extra closeness on the go.
- Learn to recognize the cues that your baby needs something, such as a feeding or an extra layer, or to be held and rocked.
- Be hands-on: Taking care of your baby is an opportunity for bonding. For example, diaper changes give you and your baby time for lots of eye contact, physical contact, and conversation (even if it's only one-way for now). Learn how to hold a crying baby (video).
- Fly solo: Take charge of your baby for short periods, as soon as you can. It'll give you more confidence. Your way of caring for your baby is probably different from your partner's, and that's okay. Your baby will benefit from your unique touch.
What if you don't feel like you're bonding with your baby?
The flood of hormones that happens when a baby is born doesn't immediately translate into a surge of protective love for all parents. Many things affect how you feel as a new parent, and it can take longer than you expect to build an attachment with your baby:
- You may need time to recover from a difficult birth experience that left you feeling upset, anxious, or in pain.
- The responsibility of becoming a new parent may overwhelm you. You'll have to make decisions about caring for your baby and yourself day and night. This can make it hard to enjoy the experience.
- How you were parented yourself can play a part in how you feel about the experience.
- If you already have another child, you may be worried about how your new arrival will change the shape of your family, and whether your older child will feel left out.
The key is to allow yourself time to fall in love with your baby. But it's important to seek help if your problems or worries seem to be mounting, rather than going away.
If you still feel anxious, overwhelmed, or detached from your baby a couple of weeks after the birth, don't keep it a secret. Tell your partner, family, and close friends, and talk to your healthcare provider about getting the support you need.