A blog by Dr Lin Day

Bonding before Birth

Some parents feel connected to their unborn baby as soon as the pregnancy is confirmed or after the first antenatal visit. For others, the emotional bond develops more gradually.

Between 10 and 12 weeks gestation, the foetal heartbeat, which resembles the hoof beats of a galloping horse, can be heard clearly. Listening to the sound can be a very moving experience for the parents. It also provides reassurance that all is well. For many fathers, the bonding process begins at this stage of the pregnancy.

An ultrasound scan at 12 weeks builds up an early image of the foetus. The baby’s hands and feet can be seen, and the eyes, ears and genitalia are in place, but not completely formed. An early ultrasound scan is not 100% accurate and parents should not pin their hopes on having a boy or girl at this stage.

The immense pride in sharing ultrasound images with friends, family and work colleagues heighten emotional ties to the baby. Studies show that a clear demonstration of the baby’s face on the image is more important than any other anatomical part. Parents often say that they can see their baby as a ‘little person’.

At about 18 week’s gestation, the first foetal movements may be felt. As the weeks go by, the baby kicks the uterine wall, performs summersaults and pushes the mother’s abdomen, which provides reassurance of the developing baby’s health and growth. The father can also feel and see the baby kicking and turning inside the mother’s abdomen, which enhances his involvement and interest in the pregnancy.

At 20 weeks, the genitalia can be clearly seen on the ultrasound scan. For some parents, knowing the sex of their unborn baby can have a profound effect on their feelings, preparations and future expectations. However, the sonographer will not reveal the sex of the baby unless the parents wish to find out.

Research shows that from 14 weeks gestation, the baby responds to sounds and vibrations from the outside world. Heart rate slows down to the sound of the mother’s voice, which provides comfort and reassurance. In response to the voice of a stranger, heartbeat quickens and kicking becomes more vigorous. Knowing that the baby can hear and recognise familiar voices provides an incredible opportunity for the parents to read or sing to their unborn baby.

If the mother is stressed or anxious, foetal heart rate can double, but when she is calm and relaxed, the baby will be too. Relaxing to a favourite piece of music, massage, yoga, getting as much rest and sleep as possible, avoiding stressful situations and having fun with friends and family can help reduce maternal stress and benefit the baby at the same time.

In the third trimester, the baby responds to simple interaction games with the mother or father. For example, when the mother talks or sings a familiar rhyme, the baby may reciprocate with vigorous kicking movements. If a protruding foot is gently pressed, the baby may pull it back and then push it out again to get a reaction. Such responses heighten excitement and reinforce feelings towards the unborn baby.

Close to the birth, the baby sleeps for about 19 hours. Between frequent naps, the baby has an alert period, which generally occurs in the evening when the mother is resting. This provides an exciting opportunity for parents to talk, sing or play with their unborn baby.

Parental interactions during pregnancy facilitate attachment and perhaps even help parents to adapt to the role of parenthood. Forming an early relationship with the baby can also enrich the parents’ lives, and have a direct impact on the baby’s brain growth and developmental outcomes after the birth.

Further reading

Day RL (2014) Prenatal development. Early Years Educator16(6): 41-44.