The benefits of bonding—the emotional attachment between parent and child—have been increasingly demonstrated in pediatric study during the last two decades. Research shows that bonding fosters a sense of security, improves health, and provides a first model for intimate relationships formed later in life.

With such high stakes, many parents feel anxious about the process—especially when the initial bond isn’t what the parent expected. It’s important to remember that bonding happens naturally, however. Whether you feel an instant connection to your newborn or it takes a bit longer, there are many ways to build a secure bond.

Bond During Pregnancy

You can actually begin to bond with baby before she is born, helping to set the stage for lifelong intimacy. Feel baby’s movement as the pregnancy progresses, see ultrasounds, journal or write letters to baby, and rub your belly to connect with your child. Dads and adoptive parents can participate in these activities, too. By the second trimester, baby develops the ability to hear, and you can play music or talk to her. Studies show that early interaction with baby will lay the groundwork for your relationship outside of the womb. In fact, newborns often show a marked preference for their parents’ voices because they are already familiar to baby.

Connect with Baby in the Hospital

When choosing where to give birth, look for a family-centered hospital that encourages parent-child bonding. Although no hospital actively discourages bonding, some place a stronger emphasis on attachment. For example, several facilities allow parents to sleep on cots near their baby in neonatal intensive care. Others maintain an active staff of lactation consultants to assist breastfeeding mothers. If medically possible, arrange for baby to sleep in your room and take an active role in her care. You can also ask to hold baby after birth or request that Dad cut the umbilical cord.

Touch Therapy for Preemies

Some newborns must spend more than a few days at the hospital. If you cannot be with your baby for an extended period after birth due to medical complications, you can still bond. Decorate baby’s hospital space with blankets and family photos or leave a recorded tape of your voice so baby is reminded of you while you are away. For preemies, engage in skin-to-skin contact (kangaroo care) by holding your diapered baby on your bare chest. Touch therapy is one of the best treatments for preemies; studies show EEG brain wave patterns improve in babies when touched, which can help improve breathing, weight gain and alertness. If touch is restricted, modified contact like holding baby’s hand will help baby sense your physical presence.

Plan for Bonding in Everyday Care

Once you’re discharged from the hospital, the best way to bond with baby is during daily tasks, such as maintaining eye contact with baby while feeding her, changing her diaper, or administering a gentle infant massage. You will inherently recognize bonding when you feel a special closeness during daily moments, like the first time you share a smile with baby, play peek-a-boo, or feel protective of her. Breastfeeding also helps form a bond because it is touch-oriented and increases oxytocin hormone levels in moms.

Give Dad a Chance

A father’s special relationship with baby differs from the maternal bond, but is just as vital to baby’s overall wellbeing. To establish attachment, fathers need to participate in daily care when bonding naturally occurs. Breastfeeding moms may pump to express milk so dads can participate in bottle feeding. While on the go, a front baby carrier can increase the amount of time baby is in contact with dad. Be sure to choose a carrier that holds baby in a position that does not strain the head, neck, spine, or hips and is made of non-toxic, allergen-free materials. There are carriers designed to meet the physical and developmental needs of infants while supporting early bonding.

Set an Infinite Timeline for Bonding

For some, bonding takes place within the first few days—or even minutes—of birth. For others, it takes longer due to emotional or medical variations, both of which are normal. Bonding does not need to occur during a particular window of time. Some researchers point to a “sensitive period” immediately after birth when mothers and newborns seem particularly primed to connect. However, if you don’t feel attached right after birth it does not mean you have missed the opportunity to develop a close relationship with your baby. Adjusting to a new baby and establishing the important connection that distinguishes the parent-child relationship can take time. Remember, you and your child are biologically prepared to form a strong bond that is unique to you and cannot be held to a pre-determined timeline.

Your bond with your child will change over the years, but its importance never fades. The key to bonding is simply to discover and enjoy your baby. Early bonding is a wonderful start to the long process of developing a trusting, loving, and lasting relationship.

Dr. Jonathan Fanaroff is a board-certified pediatrician and Director of the Rainbow Center for Pediatric Ethics in Cleveland, Ohio. He is also the Associate Medical Director of the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital/UH Case Medical Center and an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine.