We’re mammals. We like to ignore this most of the time, but when you attend births, it’s something which is impossible to forget. And like all mammals, we’ve been programmed to perform an elaborate bonding dance in the first hour after birth, often referred to as The Golden Hour*. During this time, babies are primed to respond to their mother’s voice, to look for her face, to root and nuzzle and find their mother’s nipple, to fix in their mind the image of their primary care-giver, and to breastfeed. Simultaneously, mothers are primed to fall in love with their babies. In fact, the hormonal cascade of labor is actually designed to change the brain chemistry of the woman who just gave birth, increasing her desire to nurture her newborn. Oxytocin, the hormone of love (and breastfeeding), peaks at its highest level immediately after the delivery, ensuring that motherly love—strong enough to move mountains, to fight like a tiger for your cub, to throw yourself in front of a moving bus to save your child without thinking twice—is cemented into place.
Bonding is crucial to survival; evolution has demonstrated this again and again. It’s well documented that in nature, if an animal fails to bond with her baby, that baby’s chances of surviving, let alone thriving, are pretty slim. With humans, it’s not as clear cut. Obviously strong bonds can form even without sharing the very first hour of life together, as adoption and chosen family (as opposed to biological family) demonstrates again and again, but it takes a lot more work. The beauty of the Golden Hour is that the wheels have been so perfectly greased—all you have to do is show up and be present, and falling in love is just about guaranteed.
Or was guaranteed, even just a few years ago. These days, it seems as if we’re almost willfully trying to shoot ourselves in the foot, having gotten way too meta about the entire experience. Since nothing has really actually happened until it’s been posted on Facebook, the very first thing new parents are doing these days is whipping out their phones to share the good news with the world. Gazing in wonder at the new human being who’s just entered their lives is often done through the lens of the smart-phone camera. It’s all about the stats—weight, height, name, time of birth—which is then texted to all the anxious relatives, ensuring that in addition to their parents’ voice, the very first thing the baby will hear is a barrage of beeps, vibrations or ring-tones heralding the arrival of each new text or tweet; their parents are often lost for 10-15 minutes at a time as they respond to the deluge of sms congratulations.
When I first started my career back in 2003, smart phones didn’t exist yet. Parents brought cameras with them to the hospital and maybe snapped a few photos before cuddling with their baby, but that was it. How refreshingly quaint that now seems! These days, I find myself frequently reminding parents to put their phones down. The updates can wait, the baby needs your attention now. Back in New York, when my husband and I tuned in to an episode of the American version of One Born Every Minute, we watched a well-intentioned new father accidentally drop his phone on his sleeping infant while trying to take a picture. Phones have become so ubiquitous now that no one in that delivery room even blinked—except the startled baby.
Right now we’re in the middle of giving birth to the first generation who will come into the world with smart phones as a given. My two year old son seems to think everyone has a phone the same way that everyone has a nose. He’s already quite adept at unlocking mine. The other day, in an unguarded moment, I caught him queuing up Winnie the Pooh on my Netflix app. While the American Academy of Pediatricians and Royal College of Paediatrics have warnings about this, recommending that television and other entertainment media be avoided for the first two years of life, it seems impossible to enforce. Media is everywhere we turn.
Evolution is a very slow process. Birth and bonding hasn’t changed that much in the last two thousand years, nor has our mammalian hard-wiring, while technology seems to move at the speed of light by comparison. Who knows what will happen to our species over time if we continue to squander the Golden Hour*? Put down the phone. Falling in love will never be this easy again.
*For the record, it’s not just a Golden Hour…it’s more like a Golden First Six Weeks! The many benefits of skin-to-skin contact–increased oxytocin release for both mum and baby, improved breastfeeding success, comfort, stable newborn core temperature, bonding etc.–can still occur well after the first hour of life. So even if the first hour wasn’t that golden (because you were separated from your baby, or under anesthesia, or in too much pain during a repair to be able to hold her) you can make up for it by putting your baby skin to skin as soon as possible. And for as much as you’d like to in the weeks to come!