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The Mother-Baby Dyad

Updated: Dec 23, 2023

There are moments in late pregnancy, where you are so bone tired, so laden with the body of another, that you cling tightly to the thought that birthing your baby will also mean receiving back your body. The reality though is more nuanced, more muddied - no clear delineation is restored. Mother and baby are still one unit, two beings, yes, but they are are deeply entwined. I often imagine the mother-baby dyad as like a sunset - the bright pinks of daylight merge and bleed into the dark blues of the night. Not knowing exactly where one begins and one ends.

Mother and baby are in these early minutes, weeks, months still enmeshed- completely devoted to and reliant upon one another. This is the mother-baby dyad. It is commonly stated that infants don’t even really distinguish themselves as separate from their mother until around 6 or 7 months. This hyper-reliance is unique to our species and it is this exquisite and intimate caretaking that separates us amongst all the other animals. (Okay, I have my suspicions about orcas being right there with us, but that’s another blog post.) 

When you first meet your baby it may feel as if everything else has disappeared from your consciousness and it is just you and your baby, taking one in another in for the first time. All the pain of labor and childbirth, no matter how you birthed, may disappear, anyone else around you may disappear. Theses are the first moments of the lifelong bond that forms the beating heart of the Mother-Baby Dyad. Early skin-to-skin contact with mama after birth helps baby regulate their system, take in the world safely and begin to breastfeed. A new baby is completely reliant on external regulation and caretaking to survive outside the womb. This total dependency necessitates the mother-baby dyad. Mother is baby's anchor from which to navigate scary seas of the outside-of-the-womb world.

The interplay between mother and baby's bodies does not cease at birth. Mother's bodies provide an abundance of regulating inputs for baby, none more well studied than in the complex dance of breastfeeding. The breast milk created is bespoke for baby, taking in information from infant saliva and changing the constitution of the milk being made. If you are sick, your breastmilk will contain strengthening antibodies for baby. Breastmilk created at night has a different composition for baby’s body to get signals that it’s sleepy time, not party time. The act of breastfeeding stimulates the release of hormones such as oxytocin, often referred to as the 'love hormone', which enhances maternal instincts and deepens emotional bonding. Besides offering numerous health benefits for the baby, breastfeeding also facilitates skin-to-skin contact, further cementing the bond. Breastfeeding can be tricky to establish, and if you are having trouble you should seek out the help of an IBCLC, your postpartum doula can help you find one in your area. 

A mother's emotional well-being plays a significant role in the Mother-Baby Dyad. The postpartum period is an emotionally complex time where parents will feel an intense range of emotional highs and lows- filled with joy, exhaustion, and sometimes, anxiety and depression. It is critical that the postpartum support team (partners, friends, families and doulas) are comfortable talking to mama about how she is feeling and doing, watching for signs of anxiety and depression and are there to escalate to professional resources if needed. 

“I once said: 'there is no such thing as an infant' meaning, of course, that wherever one finds an infant one finds maternal care, and without maternal care there would be no infant.”

― D.W. Winnicott

From cognitive development to emotional security, the Mother-Baby Dyad influences every aspect of a child's growth. A secure attachment, built through consistent and responsive caregiving, leads to an anchored sense of self and  healthier relationships in the future. Supporting this dyad thus becomes an investment in a child's lifelong well-being.

Clinical psychologist, Dr. Laura Markham, also emphasizes the impact of the early mother-child bond, affirming, "The emotional health of the primary caretaker is one of the most important factors in the baby's development.

The realities of the mother-baby dyad on any mother can feel intense (to say the absolute least). It can feel like you are the only two human beings on the planet at times. As a mother, you are going through a complete reorganization of your identity, your body and your relationships. Everything changes and quickly. This can be jarring, but it can also unfold as one of the greatest gifts of your life. The ability to thrive in postpartum is not singularly on you, mama. It is on the support that you receive. You can not show up for your baby if you don’t have anyone showing up for you. It can be hard to accept a lot of help for those of us independent minded mamas, it can be jarring to need so much help. It is critical that mothers do get help and care for themselves. I am heartened to see new discussions urging visitors to focus on the mother, focus on household care rather than seeing/holding/touching the baby. Hold the mother, help with the household, do everything possible to allow new parents to deeply bond with their babies and get rest. 

The mother-baby dyad is a sacred and sustaining bond that is deeply established in early postpartum. It is this bondI work to support and protect as a postpartum doula. In order to have healthy, nurtured babies who grow up into healthy, happy adults, we must nurture, care for, protect and support mothers postpartum. 

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