Baby-Bonding for Non-Gestational Parents: How You're Ahead Of The Curve And Don't Even Know It
We (LGBTQIA-2+ folks) create our families in a plethora of ways: surrogacy, adoption, egg donation, sperm donation, fostering, and blended families of choice. There are all kinds of styles, each with its beauty and it’s challenges. With all of this variety, you may wonder, how much do we really have in-common? Well, there are many common concerns that LGBTQX families share. One of them is how non-gestational / non-genetic parents bond with their babies in the absence of carrying them and/or being genetically related.
Now, before I go much further, I want to clear something up: parent-baby bonding is different from attachment. Parent-baby bonding describes the parents’ sense of connection to the baby. It is unidirectional. Whereas “attachment” refers to the baby’s connectedness with their caregiver as a foundation from which the baby can feel secure to explore the world. What we’re diving into here is “parent-baby bonding”.
Why Is Parent-Baby Bonding Important? And Is Baby Bonding Different For Non-Gestational Mothers, Fathers, or Trans, Non-binary, or Genderqueer Parents?
In the literature, what I’m calling “parent-baby bonding” is described as “mother-to-infant bonding”. (I am making an assumption that in substituting the word “parent”, especially when referring to baby’s primary caregiver of any gender, we can still learn a lot from this research about what helps this bond to form.) The reason that birth advocates, postpartum doulas, midwives, and other birth and postpartum providers care about parent-baby bonding, is because it appears to contribute positively to the baby’s social-emotional development.
That feels like a whole lot of pressure, doesn’t it? Many non-gestational parents (new and experienced) worry about not feeling close to or attached to their new baby. Anecdotally, I know many, many LGBTQIA-2+ families, my own included, whose non-gestational parent(s) felt quite a bit of distress in the lead-up to baby coming. How am I going to feel? Am I going to feel connected to this baby? What do I do, if I don’t? And then once the baby came, it either wasn’t an issue, or, more commonly, with time, both parents felt a greater sense of connection which grew as the baby did. Gestational and non-gestational. This journey of creating connection for gestational and non-gestational parents just isn’t as straightforward as it may appear. What does the research tell us?
Taking a look at the research, it becomes clear that there’s not a lot out there that examines the experiences of LGBTQIA-2+ families and baby bonding. Here, I’m pulling from studies or meta-analyses conducted in The Netherlands, Japan, the UK, and the US that ask questions having to do with the factors that influence baby-bonding with gestational mothers, the differences between Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART) and non-ART families in baby-bonding and the psychological wellbeing of parents and baby at age 3, the experiences of non-gestational lesbian parents in becoming parents and baby-bonding, and the different baby-bonding perceptions and outcomes amongst lesbian, gay, and heterosexual couples who adopted. Let’s begin by looking at the factors that apply to non-gestational parents and how they contribute positively to bonding.
Non-Gestational Parents: Factors That Influence Parent-Baby Bonding
In many cases, you’ve already made decisions and laid-down intentions that positively affect future parent-baby bonding. Yes, it’s true: parent-baby bonding begins even before conception. In fact, a 2019 meta analysis funded by the Midwifery Academy Amsterdam Groningen looks at both pre-natal and post-natal correlates (think of correlates as “events” or “circumstances”) that impact parent-baby bonding. The findings were not only fascinating, but also help us to take a deep breath, relax, and find a sense of confidence in our budding (or continuing) roles as parents.
Pregnancy: Planned and/or Desired?
This study found that a “planned pregnancy” and a “desired pregnancy” were correlated (although weakly) with positive parent-baby bonding. As LGBTQIA-2+ families, we certainly put a lot of time, effort, emotional labor, money, and mental energy into creating our families. So, for a lot of us, even alongside the ambivalent or hard feelings that can and do arise during the process of conception, pregnancy, and postpartum, we’ve got this one wrapped-up.
Social Support Assists in Parent-Baby Bonding for Non-Gestational and Gestational Parents
It’s probably unsurprising that a pregnant person’s (and we’ll extend it to any postpartum parent for our discussion) social support network is an important piece of their own mental-emotional wellbeing, but it also contributes favorably to parent-baby bonding. More than one study has explored the correlation between social support and parent-baby bonding, and they have found that feeling/being supported during pregnancy/before the baby comes, shows particularly promising impacts on parent-baby bonding.
A study out of Nagoya University, Japan, uncovered that the number of supportive people in an expectant parent’s life during pregnancy had a direct link to the success of their bonding with the baby and their risk for postpartum depression. For an in-depth look at holistic ways to prevent and address postpartum depression, click here.
Demographics: Education, Age, Income -- Does It Matter?
Exploring what doesn’t matter (or are inconclusive in studies) to parent-baby bonding is also worth mentioning. Why is that? Well, there is a lot of misinformation out there on all topics parenting-pregnancy-baby-related and dispelling misconceptions can help us to make more informed choices about changes we need to make and the places where our energies matter the most.
The Midwifery Academy study found that demographic correlates (like age, income, marital status, occupation/employment) had an inconclusive influence on parent-baby bonding. What that means is that the studies they looked at contradict one another: ½ found that higher education/income level was beneficial whereas ½ found the opposite to be true.
It appears that your age, (formal) educational level, and income have little influence on your future relationship with your baby. One less thing to worry about!
Is There A Difference Between Baby-Bonding Outcomes For Gestational and Non-Gestational Parents?
The short answer is, it appears not! In fact, a 2006 study of non-gestational and non-genetic families’ found that levels of “warmth and interaction” between mothers and babies from families using ART were significantly higher than from families not using ART. This was true, regardless of whether or not that mother carried the child (i.e. used a sperm donor and/or egg donor) or if that mother used a surrogate.
So, let’s take these results a step further. Assuming that being female-assigned-at-birth has little to nothing to do with one’s ability to bond with your baby, this study shows us that, if anything, families using ART, surrogacy, or adoption, have better baby-bonding outcomes than families that conceive without ART.
Furthermore, that same study measured the psychological wellbeing of the parents (in this case, mothers and fathers) as well as their babies at age 3. Even with some differences between the stress levels of parents at age 1 and age 2, by age 3 the psychological wellbeing of both parents as well as their three year olds were all normal and showed no difference between ART and non-ART families.
Non-Gestational Parents: You're Already Ahead Of The Curve
Non-gestational and non-genetic parents are more well set-up to connect, bond, feel warmth, and be psychologically well than you may have known.
As you navigate early pregnancy or even postpartum, put your attention toward the factor that matters the most, and that you have the most control over: social support! Reach out for help, create bonds of care, try to put hesitancy and resistance to being helped to the side. This time is a time to create webs of support in order to build your psychological wellbeing as parents, as well as set you all up for baby-bonding. And if you or your partner struggles with depression or anxiety, see this article on natural remedies to prevent or ease postpartum depression.
If you're looking for a space centering non-gestational parents, check out our online course: Baby-Bonding For Non-Gestational Parents. Here, you'll learn baby-bonding techniques that are chest-optional, gender-affirming, and that the evidence-base shows help you to build a strong connection with your little one.
Golombok, C. Murray, V. Jadva, E. Lycett, F. MacCallum, J. Rust, Non-genetic and non-gestational parenthood: consequences for parent–child relationships and the psychological well-being of mothers, fathers and children at age 3, Human Reproduction, Volume 21, Issue 7, Jul 2006, Pages 1918–1924, https://doi.org/10.1093/humrep/del039
Ohara, Masako. Takashi Okada, Branko Aleksic, et al. Social support helps protect against perinatal bonding failure and depression among mothers: a prospective cohort study. Scientific Reports. 2017; 7: 9546.
Morse, Amy B., "Learning from lesbian non-gestational parents : contributions to a changing world" (2013). Masters Thesis, Smith College, Northampton, MA. https://scholarworks.smith.edu/theses/946