Our newborn prefers her mom!

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Our new baby is only five weeks old and is a really easy baby to take care of, except for one thing. She really prefers me (mom) to her dad.  I'm sure that part of the problem is that I'm breastfeeding, but I don't want to give that up. Even if she has just been fed she gets fussy when her dad holds her and then calms down when he gives her back to me. He's feeling very left out.  Is there anything we can do?

You are describing an experience that happens quite often. The bond between a new mom and her baby is very strong, biologically and emotionally.  Breastfeeding can enhance that bond because only the mother can provide milk. Since young babies need to be fed very often, they associate the good feelings of nourishment and warmth with being held by mom. They may fuss or cry when someone who smells and feels a little different tries to hold them.

Those cries then trigger a mother's natural biological response: when a nursing mom hears her baby cry, she releases hormones that "let down" her milk.   A mother will feel anxious and tense until she can soothe her baby by nursing or comforting.  Once she nurses, she will get a feeling of relief and relaxation. This is, of course, nature’s way of protecting a baby, by making it more likely that a mom will instinctively want to stay close by for feedings!

A father may not like it when his baby cries, but he may be able to tolerate it a little longer.  The result can be that when dad holds the baby and she cries, mom gets tense, which makes dad tense, and then baby is returned to the familiarity of mother's arms.

Of course, these are generalizations and don’t apply to every parent. And it would be wrong to assume that breastfeeding is the only reason a mother cares for her baby.  Any pattern of holding and feeding and comforting a newborn creates this bond.

With all that, there are still many ways for a father to develop a close relationship to a young baby. First, it’s really important for dads to start caring for the baby early, as often as possible. Interestingly, some studies have shown that when a mother has had a Caesarian birth, dads are more likely to share care of babies in the months that follow, probably because they've been so necessary to the baby's care in the first weeks while the mother is recovering.

A baby with a “mom preference” will do best if mom is simply not available while dad is taking care of her.  If your baby has just been fed, Dad can take her for a walk, snuggled on his shoulder or tucked in a front pack.  Fresh air, movement, and body contact will often make a baby with a full stomach relax enough to forget about mom for an hour or two.   Even in a community where many dads are very involved parents, a dad on his own will often get lots of compliments about being a great father just for taking the baby for a walk!  As annoying as this can be for moms, it’s great for dads to get this approval.   While fathers are out, moms get a chance for a break.  Even more important, moms aren't there to offer advice or take over.  Most dads don't appreciate itwhen moms try to convince that the only way to take care of the baby is the mom's way. Even if a dad seems a little clumsy at times, he'll get better with practice and micromanaging always leads to tension and conflict.

Even if your baby is completely breast fed, think about having dad offer her a bottle of expressed milk once a day. Don't wait too long for this, even if it seems less convenient at times.  If your baby doesn't get used to taking a bottle early, she may refuse one in the months to come, and you'll feel even more tied down.  Besides, dads enjoy being able to share the pleasure of feeding time with their baby.  If you don't want to use expressed milk, he can offer a bottle of water.  

Some babies will drink water more readily if you dissolve one teaspoon of sugar (not honey) into four ounces of warm water. The slightly sweet water is more appealing than plain but won't interfere with your baby's hunger for her next meal.

Bath time can also be fun, if your baby likes the water.  Most babies like a little massage with an unscented oil or lotion.  Choose a time when your baby is in her "quiet alert" stage for the best experience for both baby and dad. Gentle massage will often help a baby to prolong a quiet state that continues even after the massage is over. Even diapering can be "quality time" for a dad and baby, if he talks and coos to her while he is cleaning and changing her.

As new parents you need to be very aware of each other's needs right now. Mothers are often so overwhelmed with caring for a new baby that they don't have much energy left for the couple relationship.  Dads, on the other hand, may not get to enjoy the baby as much and may feel deprived of both their mate and their expectations of what fatherhood would be like.  Both parents can wind up feeling that even though the baby is wonderful, daily life isn't very much fun!

Fortunately, nature designed babies to rapidly move through this period of complete dependency on mom.  Soon, your baby will become a delightfully social being.  By the time you read this, she will be smiling and flirting as she discovers that there is more to life than a good meal and a nap.  In fact, by the end of her third month, she'll be so delighted to see her dad that you'll see her get excited and animated just seeing his face!  So be patient, support each other through this difficult time, and you'll all emerge intact.