Before my first son was born, I’d learned about the “golden hour”: that magical period right after birth, when the baby would be awake and not fussy and would want to nurse. It’s hard to say now where I first heard the term, because it felt like it was truly everywhere: on the mommy blogs I read furtively to try to study my way into motherhood, at prenatal yoga, at the childbirth class led by a doula who warned us against the “cascade of interventions” that would lead us away from the natural birth our bodies were designed for. Contact during this time was essential, I’d been told, not just for breastfeeding, but so we could bond. While pregnant, I’d read birth stories written by women who’d had that time “stolen” from them by hospital interventions or a C-section, and this was always presented as tragedy. I took that bit of information—the golden hour is a crucial time for bonding with my new baby—as fact.
Becoming a mother was overwhelming. I didn’t know how to swaddle a baby or put him down for a nap. I’m not sure I’d ever even changed a diaper. I hoped that birth would switch something on in me, that the instant love I’d surely feel for my new baby would also teach me how to care for him. When my baby was born after two days of labor, and he was laid birth-blue and cone-headed against my chest; when he slept in the recovery room with us, swaddled beside me in a clear-sided bassinet; when I nursed him anytime he rustled, and held and patted him when he sighed in his sleep, I was certain I was doing everything right.
At the hospital, nurses popped up to help with diapers and swaddling and giving the baby his first bath. Lactation specialists cycled through and assured me I was doing a great job. In those first three days, I felt confident, content, and cared for, just as I’d expected I would be. The magic myth of the “golden hour” assured me that everything I was doing was setting us on the right path for our new relationship, that if I got it right in those first days, we’d be fine.
But once we were home, it was a different story. The baby alternately cluster-nursed and howled. He slept for long stretches in the day, then screamed all night. I loved the baby in an immediate, biological way, but I could never seem to soothe him. I believed our bond had failed.
I’m not alone in believing those first moments after birth would result in an immediate connection to my newborn that would guarantee an easy passage into motherhood. The concept of the “golden hour” shows up everywhere, from a Scary Mommy article issuing a stern warning about this time (“no matter what, your child needs for you to defend it”) to a piece on the website of Sanford Health, one of the largest health systems in the United States, which asserts that “the first few minutes after birth are a magical time for bonding with baby.” And even when the phrase itself isn’t used, the idea that the first moments after birth will be filled with joy and immediate connection is omnipresent. Think of the diaper commercials that show a new mother holding her baby for the first time, or basically any movie you’ve ever seen that includes a birth. No matter how much the birth itself is played for laughs (with the person giving birth swearing and yelling), the moments after are portrayed as bleary-eyed bliss.
When I spoke with Sarah Oreck, a psychiatrist who specializes in reproductive mental health, she compared our expectations about golden-hour bonding to unrealistic ideals about romantic love. “There are these myths of the unconditional love or the greatest love you’ve ever experienced right in the first moment,” Oreck observed. And these expectations, she notes, are at odds with the medical realities of birth, which can involve surgery, sedation, or hours of pushing. “It’s actually not so common to have that instant euphoric connection,” she told me.
The stickiness of the story of golden-hour bonding, which persists despite reassuring words from mental health care providers like Oreck and decades of challenges from researchers in psychology, anthropology, the history of science, and more, is emblematic of a larger phenomenon in American parenting culture, in which a bad or incomplete idea, often accompanied by claims about what’s “natural” for human mothers and supported by studies of animal mothering, enters the popular imagination and stays there, long after it’s been critiqued or debunked by other researchers. One way to unhook from the persistent mythology of bonding is to track its origins, which go back to the midcentury quest to describe a stable set of “maternal instincts” that were supposedly fixed, innate, and biological. And in so doing, we find ourselves with baby geese and mother goats.
Following the upheaval of World War II, when many children were orphaned or separated from their parents, the World Health Organization tasked British psychoanalyst and psychiatrist John Bowlby with studying what children need from a caregiver to ensure healthy emotional and physical development. The Nature and Nurture of Love, by historian of science Marga Vicedo, tells the story of Bowlby’s turn to the animal world, and the emerging field of ethology (the study of animal behavior), for support when his theories about humans were criticized. To support his argument that children’s psychological and biological well-being depends on a stable bond with a single caregiver, ideally the biological mother, Bowlby drew on studies done by ethologist Konrad Lorenz. Lorenz studied imprinting in ducks, geese, and jackdaws; he’s most famously pictured trailed by a gaggle of ducklings who’ve “imprinted” on him.
As Bowlby and Lorenz described them, maternal instincts were an automatic, animal response to a newborn. Seen this way, maternal instincts make the mother’s presence and attention central for the child’s emotional and physical development—while also devaluing the intellectual labor of caregiving. In other words, a mother who loves her child instinctively is merely animal, acting in the way her biology has programmed her. She doesn’t really have, or even need, a mind. Though his research subjects were animals, Lorenz argued that his theories about the innate nature of social behaviors applied to human women and their babies, too.
These weren’t academic studies whose impact was confined to conference rooms. Bowlby and Lorenz were skilled at gaining attention in the press. Bowlby’s 1953 book, a shortened version of the report he’d written for the WHO, sold more than 400,000 copies in its English paperback edition. Bowlby wrote for popular magazines like Home Companion, and his article “Mother Is the Whole World” struck an international chord, with its ideas recirculated in press from South Africa to Italy. Lorenz appeared in a 1955 Life magazine article, photographed surrounded by his goslings, under the headline “An Adopted Mother Goose.”
Many researchers followed in this vein, studying the mothering behaviors of sheep, rats, and goats, and extrapolating their findings to humans. In one particularly wild study published in the American Scientist in 1971, scientists sprayed cocaine (more precisely cocaine hydrochloride) into the nostrils of goats who’d just given birth. With their sense of smell disabled, the mother goats were unable to recognize their young and refused to care for the kids they’d just delivered. Though goats were the sole research subject, the article leapt rapidly to human application. (The study’s primary author, Peter Klopfer, later backed away from this speedy leap from animal to human, in a 1996 article titled “ ‘Mother Love’ Revisited: On the Use of Animal Models.” He admits, in what he calls a mea culpa: “We had few inhibitions about extrapolating freely across taxa.”)
This all sounds preposterous from our present vantage point—of course, women aren’t goats or ducks or geese; of course, parents of all genders can develop a supportive, loving relationship with a child, even if they’re not present right at birth—but this kind of animal research has been marshalled time and again to support some of our most persistent, and most damaging, beliefs about motherhood. Research on animal motherhood shows up in the very first sentence of a landmark study of human mothers that led to dramatic shifts in policies on maternity wards from the 1970s on, as hospitals moved away from keeping newborns in nurseries to encouraging mothers to “room-in” with their new baby. This study, “Maternal Attachment: Importance of the First Post-Partum Days,” published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1972 and later expanded in the book Maternal-Infant Bonding: The Impact of Early Separation or Loss on Family Development, begins by noting that “in certain animals such as the goat, cow, and sheep, separation of the mother and infant immediately after birth for a period as short as one to four hours often results in distinctly aberrant mothering.” The researchers report that their study was guided by “the hypothesis that there is a period shortly after birth that is uniquely important for mother-to-infant attachment in the human being.” And for the first time, they tested this idea on humans, not animals.
In this study, these 28 first-time human mothers were divided into two groups: those who had “traditional” contact, which was defined as “a glimpse of the baby shortly after birth, brief contact and identification at six to 12 hours, and then visits for 20 to 30 minutes every four hours for bottle feeding.” In contrast, the “extended contact” mothers were given their new baby, naked, immediately after birth for one hour within the first three hours after delivery; they were also given an additional five hours of contact each afternoon for the first three days after delivery. This study presented a remarkable finding: This additional contact—16 hours across three or four days of a hospital stay—apparently produced more tender, engaged mothers, more devoted to their babies, more sensitive to their needs.
But the measures used to assess the quality of this bond point to the biases inherent in the research. Women were asked, in a follow-up one month after birth, what they did when their babies cried, even when they’d been fed and had a dry diaper. Women who let their baby cry were scored a zero, while women who reported picking up their baby every time earned a perfect three. The mothers were also asked whether they’d been out in this first month after their baby’s birth; women who had not left their baby earned a three, as did women who left but “thought constantly” of their baby while out. Women who reported they “felt good” and did not think of their baby while out were scored zero. Researchers also scored women’s behavior during a checkup of their baby by the pediatrician. If the mother stood by the doctor and watched the entire time, they were rated a three. If they sat or looked anywhere but at their baby, a zero.
These measures, which purported to assess the quality of a mother-infant bond, are rooted in a very specific idea of what makes a mother good. By this standard, a good mother is constantly attentive, perhaps even over-anxious, a mother who believes and behaves as if only she can care for the baby right. This standard judges as insufficiently devoted any mother who leaves her child for work or to see friends, who doesn’t feel entitled to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the doctor, who trusts that her co-parent or a member of her community could also be a competent caregiver to her child. It also normalizes an elevated level of vigilance that can contribute to postpartum anxiety and what writer Sarah Menkedick has called “a silent epidemic of fear” among mothers.
The theory of maternal attachment presented by this influential study—that a new mother can form a robust, long-lasting attachment to her child, given only 16 additional hours of contact in the days right after birth—lends itself well to the kind of quick fix American culture loves. Because pediatricians and researchers, following this study, assumed women, like goats and ducks, could bond with their babies in mere days after birth, hospital policies were changed to encourage new mothers to room-in with their newborns. Though rooming-in can help promote early breastfeeding, it also puts the burden of care for the newborn on the person who’s just given birth. Sarah Oreck, the reproductive psychologist, noted that rooming-in is, for many new mothers, “quite exhausting. It’s not restorative.” She added, “In what other area of medicine have you heard of someone having a surgery and then having to take care of another human being?” Rooming-in is also a poor substitute for the paid leave from work that would allow a deep caregiving relationship to develop.
Oreck told me that she sees many new parents who had a C-section or a complicated birth or a medically fragile infant who required care in the NICU. Because they missed out on the initial bonding and “skin to skin,” they often worry about what will happen to the baby and to their bond with their newborn. (Numbers of people worried about this may, during the COVID pandemic, have multiplied, as parents fear the possibility of being separated from newborns due to positive tests.) She told me that “deviation from the expectation can set a lot of people up for mood and anxiety symptoms and a great deal of grief.” “What’s going to happen,” she told me, “is that you’re going to be fine. You and your baby can bond at home, and you can have skin-to-skin contact later.”
A baby is just the beginning of a child, and a new mother is just that—new. Oreck explained that bonding evolves over time, particularly as the baby develops socially and begins to acquire language. Unlike the model presented in the mythology around bonding, she reminded me, this relationship “is not defined by the first moment that you see your baby.” No one’s born knowing everything their child needs, and our ideas about maternal instincts have given short shrift to the labor of caregiving. When I spoke to her via Zoom, the historian of science Marga Vicedo, who researched the work of Lorenz and Bowlby, suggested instead that we “recognize that mothering is hard work, and it’s work that requires intelligence and wisdom. It’s not something that just comes naturally.”
In my own life as a mother, despite an uncomplicated delivery and those three dreamy days of extended contact with my newborn at a “baby-friendly” hospital, bonding wasn’t easy or automatic. For the first weeks of my son’s life, I veered wildly between an overwhelming, alchemical love and the certainty that I was not the kind of person who ever should have had kids. As he grew, we got to know each other. I know now that bonding isn’t, as the concept of golden-hour bonding suggests, inherent in the hormonal glue of birth and skin-to-skin. My bond with my son didn’t switch on all at once, the first time he smiled or waved or called for me when I picked him up from day care. Like any love, it happened in time.