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Mother Baby Rhythm

The mother-baby rhythm is more than a bond between the mother and baby. It is a close and cyclical relationship that provides for both physically and emotionally.

The Right Start

The optimal start for the bond between a mother and her infant occurs with an unmedicated birth, and an alert infant who is able to self-attach and begin breastfeeding. Both processes of birth and breastfeeding promote the bonding process. This process leads to the establishment of the Mother/Baby Rhythm.

The Mother/Baby Rhythm describes a relationship between the two that strengthens her ability to bond with and care for the baby while simultaneously caring for herself. The Mother/Baby Rhythm occurs because the two individuals are critically important to each other and the relationship central for both of them. However, both also have needs and interests apart from the other.

The Mother/Baby Rhythm is a cyclical pattern where periods of contact and interaction are followed by periods of non-interaction. In the non-interaction phase, the needs of both mother and baby are met. With time the cycles will be differentiated and the length of each will be longer.

How to Establish A Mother Baby Rhythm

Seven behaviors can help to establish and maintain the Mother/Baby Rhythm. These behaviors are:
  • Keeping the mother and baby together
  • Frequent touch
  • Two way communication
  • Comforting the baby
  • Differentiating between meeting needs and spoiling
  • Developing synchrony between parent and child
  • Developing predictable cycles
These behaviors are valuable for all parents of infants. However, for some parents these behaviors may be of even greater importance. If the Mother Baby Rhythm failed to develop in the first few days or weeks, focusing on ONE or TWO of these behaviors can significantly increase the bond and rhythm between mother and baby.

Interuptions and Interventions at Birth

When the birthing or breastfeeding process has been interrupted, there may be a compromise - even a slight one - in the bond between mother and child. However, in those situations, parents can intentionally focus on the bonding process by using these specific behaviors. Certainly, the entire future relationship between parents and children are NOT controlled by the events of those first few days. Mothers and babies can be reconnected when they have been disconnected. We humans are quite flexible and our babies particularly so.

Postpartum Depression

When the birthing or breastfeeding process has been interrupted, there is greater chance of postpartum depression. Postpartum depression has been correlated with increased obstetrical intervention, such as cesarean or instrument delivery. It can also be a cause and an effect of breastfeeding termination.

Mothers who suffer from postpartum depression are more likely to have a more difficult time bonding with their children. By intentionally focusing on one or two of the seven behaviors that promote the Mother/Baby Rhythm, the mother not only will improve her relationship with her child, but in many cases may diminish the severity of her depressive symptoms.


These behaviors to establish the Mother/Baby Rhythm can be particularly important for adoptive parents. The prenatal relationship may not have been built as it would be if the adoptive mother had carried and given birth to the child; yet the ability to bond with and nurture the child is still strong and can be enhanced.

In fact, all parents, regardless of the events of the first few hours and days can strengthen the bond with their child. The goal is to develop and enhance the Mother/Baby Rhythm. It is never too early or too late to start.

How to Initiate the Mother Baby Rhythm

To understand the development of the Mother/Baby Rhythm, we need to examine the characteristics of the mother/baby dyads which do not have institutional procedures interrupting their relationship.

Babies born at home do not get packed off to the nursery. Home birth is not an option for everyone; and there are valid physical and other reasons that some people have for avoiding birth at home. The homebirth community does, however, witness the natural mother/baby cycle that develops.

That same cycle is usually emulated at free standing birth centers. Generally few hospital staff, even among the most 'progressive' hospitals witness this cycle, and thus do not know how to protect and promote it. Indeed, many nurses are unaware that it even exists.

In these optimal births, the development of the Mother/Baby Rhythm begins immediately. Babies are placed on their mothers immediately at birth. There, they gently awake to the sights, sounds, smells, and tactile sensations of this new world. The apgar score is taken, identifying bands placed, the cord cut – all done with as little manipulation as possible.

Sometimes as the placenta is delivered, the mother may assume a position that makes holding the baby awkward, so Dad or another family member holds and talks to the baby. When the mother's physiological third stage and initial cleaning are completed, baby comes back to mother and stays skin to skin against her. That baby will initiate breastfeeding on his own. His mouthing movements indicate he is interested and he navigates towards the mother's breast. In such cases, "helping the new mother breastfeed" consists primarily of the health care professionals pointing out the things the baby is doing rather than giving her a set of instructions as to what she should do.

Soon, the mother is going to need to walk to the toilet to urinate. If she held the baby through the delivery of the placenta, this may be the first time skin to skin contact is broken. Usually one friend or relative helps the mother as another holds the baby. Often two or three people may hold and welcome this new family member until the mother's needs are cared for and she gets settled. Once she is settled, baby returns to mother's arms. Often by this time mother is dressed, and baby snuggles into the warm and favorite place skin to skin with mother.

In fact, Mommy becomes “base” during a series of events that unfold. As the mother takes care of her own needs for food, movement, elimination, and social interaction, the physical contact between mother and baby is interrupted and then re-connected. Usually the baby is held in the arms of another adoring individual who is awed by every feature of the baby. Sometimes Baby may be laid down in his own space. But always he returns to that safe and wonderful place that is a truly only inches away from the warm, watery haven he lived in for nine months.

In a natural, unmedicated birth with uninterrupted contact, Mommy and Baby will generally settle down for their first sleep about two hours after birth. If they are close together, mother will often wake as the baby starts moving out of his sleep, even before he begins crying. Truth be told, she could use a few more hours of uninterrupted sleep, but a tiny little tummy has digested its first meal and is now experiencing the first bite of hunger. Warmed by her touch, comforted by her voice, and nourished by her breast, the infant relaxes.

So begins the first dance of the mother/infant sleep & wake cycle. If the mother recognizes these hours as a continuation of physiologic labor, now the labor of coordinating their cycles, she will be there for the baby. The benefit to her is that she will become more rested, more physiologically attuned to her infant's sleeping, eating, and waking, and will adjust herself physically and emotionally. Instead of "recovering" from labor and birth she is "completing" them. Over the hours, days, and weeks the length of the cycle extends. The periods of time when she is not in contact with the baby also lengthen. And so the cycle continues. The baby grows. He sits, and reaches, and crawls. He goes outdoors, sees new people, finds new adventures. But always he returns to mother for food and comfort.

How long does this cycle last? This dance where infants return to the place of greatest security after exploring the world around them? Weeks? Months? Years? Or decades?

When we unnaturally separate mother and baby, we undermine "base." That unnatural separation can come about because of interference from well-meaning healthy care staff, or interference from enthusiastic family or friends who are eager to visit the long-awaited newcomer. It can come about because the mother too quickly resumes her other responsibilities before establishing the cycle. However, we can promote the seven behaviors that support the Mother/Baby Rhythm to provide the best outcome for all families.

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By Karen Newell Copyright 2003 - 2012 Better Childbirth Outcomes - All Rights Reserved
Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, USA