It's meant to be love at first sight, but as many as one in five mothers find they cannot bond with their new baby, leading to feelings of shame and inadequacy. Eleni Kyriacou talks to three women about their struggles.

When Sarah's son, Joe, was 18 months old she remembers thinking, '"I don't know who you are, I don't know what you are and I don't know what to do with you." I'd pick him up if he cried, but I couldn't play with him or interact.'

Despite a planned pregnancy and a happy relationship with her husband, Sarah, an administrator from Oxford, found herself living out the ultimate taboo. She was a new mother who couldn't bond with her child. From the moment that blue line appears on the pregnancy testing kit, expectant mothers are bombarded with messages all telling the same tale: that as soon as they hold their newborn child they'll experience a deep, unconditional love. So powerful is this love that it will make any monotony, isolation and exhaustion they may encounter on their journey into motherhood worthwhile.

While that love usually does take hold and a deep bond develops between most new mothers and their babies, it is certainly not a given. There are many women who have feelings of indifference, ambivalence or even dislike for their child, but they rarely admit it for fear of seeming 'unnatural' or inadequate. A survey for Johnson's Baby found that more than a third of mothers have felt they have not bonded with their baby as much as they should have, and 18 per cent say they've had moments when they've felt no bond at all.

Pat Spungin, a child psychologist and the founder of the parenting website, says, 'There's an automatic assumption in our culture that mothers will bond with their babies. Mothers who don't immediately feel this tremendous engagement think there must be something wrong with them and ask, "Am I normal?"'

'Joe arrived five weeks early,' says Sarah, now 40, 'so perhaps I didn't make the transition from having an imaginary baby to having a real one. When I got home, my midwife said, "I'm not surprised he was early; you were very stressed." Which wasn't true – I was just busy and had only finished work six days before. That comment sat there, and it was a condemnation of my ability to be a good mother.'

Sarah's first few months as a mother were riddled with pain. 'I found breast-feeding absolute agony, and I also had gallstones. I was so tense Joe picked up on it, and things went from bad to worse. Only later did I realise I'd slipped into postnatal depression (PND). I was getting through one day at a time and don't remember any of his milestones, like when he first sat up or started to crawl.'

At 18 months, Joe's behaviour deteriorated; he would line up all his toys around himself as he withdrew into his own world, and started kicking Sarah. 'I would grab him and feel the need rising up to shake him,' she says. 'I'd have to put him down, go into another room for 10 minutes and shut the door to keep him safe. I'd hear him screaming on the other side. I'd return out of a sense of duty rather than love. My husband only saw the tip of the iceberg; he now admits he withdrew into his work as a police officer by taking longer shifts.' Sarah put Joe's behaviour down to her failing. (It was not until he was six that a diagnosis of autism was made.) 'I felt I had no control over him and even called my husband home from work a couple of times because I didn't trust myself and was worried I'd hurt him.' When Joe was two, Sarah gave birth to Lola, who seemed to underline the problems between son and mother. 'Lola was sheer bliss and radiated peace. I bonded with her instantly. I felt such guilt about that.'

Although she had started taking medication to alleviate her PND, it was not until her husband, Samuel, pointed out the effect her mood had on Joe that real changes took place. 'If I was having a bad day, he would, too. So I started looking after myself – taking breaks to sleep, doing yoga, having counselling. I suspected autism from the age of three, but once the formal diagnosis came at six I felt that rush of love that people talk about. Suddenly I realised it wasn't my fault. I could do things to help him. Today we're very close.'

Experts agree that, as Sarah's case shows, a mother who has bonding difficulties with a newborn can still develop a bond later. Richard Woolfson, a child psychologist and the author of How To Have a Happy Child, explains: 'There's a lot of mystique about bonding. The myth is that it's love at first sight, and it's all or nothing. In my experience it takes time. There are so many everyday issues like feeding and sleeping that can make mothers feel anxious and lose confidence. The real emotional connection between a mother and child – the bond – is built gradually over a period of months. Don't give up. If you're not physically connected with your baby – by changing and feeding and soothing when he or she's crying – you're going to struggle to be emotionally connected.

'Bonding is the bedrock of a baby's later emotional development, and if babies don't form a secure emotional connection with an adult by the age of four they're highly likely to have relationship problems later in life – and perhaps have issues bonding with their own children.' There can be many reasons a mother and child don't bond. Woolfson says that unresolved emotional baggage may mean some mothers find it harder to give or receive love, while some may simply find the responsibility of motherhood too demanding. 'And if PND is involved, of course you must get medical help.'

High-profile sufferers of postnatal depression include Brooke Shields, Elle Macpherson and Sadie Frost. Recently, Gwyneth Paltrow spoke out about her PND following the birth of her second child, Moses, and shed light on the fact that even experienced mothers can have bonding difficulties.

This was the case for Jessica, 35, a former nurse from the south-west of England who already had two children when she gave birth to Daisy. 'I remember saying to the doctors, "Can you hurry up – cut this cord and take her from me, please!" I held her for a few minutes but I was in a lot of physical discomfort and just wanted to have a shower and escape because she wouldn't stop screaming. I looked at her and thought, "She's really ugly." I'd never felt that with my other babies and those feelings stayed for several weeks.

'I'd leave her in her pram and get my mother to jiggle it to keep her asleep as long as possible. I didn't love her like I did the others, so I overcompensated by breast-feeding on the hour, and made a rod for my own back. I became very resentful of her because I was hardly sleeping. I was jealous of the sleep my husband, Dominic, was getting. At one point I said, "If she were never to wake up again I wouldn't be too worried because at least I'd be able to sleep." He was appalled, of course, and said he didn't want to hear me speak like that.'

Jessica's mood had been worsening ever since she suddenly came off Prozac on discovering she was pregnant. 'I was afraid to return to my GP once I'd given birth because he'd probably tell me to go back on the medication and stop breast-feeding. I became quite obsessed with breast-feeding.'

By the time Daisy was three months old, Jessica was at her wits' end. 'As well as Daisy, I had my three-year-old, Johnny, and my 18-month-old baby, Marie. One day I was arguing with Dominic and I just grabbed Daisy and ran to the car. I didn't know what I was going to do. I needed to get away but knew I couldn't leave her behind because of the breast-feeding – I didn't want to fail her on that. I ended up staring at a wall in the village car park, thinking, "That's what I have to do." I drove at speed towards it, then Daisy suddenly started crying. I stopped and sat and cried. Then I fed her. I think her crying had made me snap out of it.'

After this Jessica finally saw a different GP, who prescribed an antidepressant that could be used while breast-feeding. 'As my mood lifted, gradually the bond and love increased. The turning-point, though, was when Daisy caught pneumonia and I thought she would die. I remember thinking how vulnerable she looked, and a tidal wave of pure emotion hit me, as well as a huge feeling of guilt. By the time she was one, I felt the same for her as my other children.

'Accepting help from others was very difficult because there's a huge stigma attached to not bonding. I have four children now, and people are always shocked when they hear what I went through with Daisy because I'm a real earth-mother type – I even use cloth nappies! Which just goes to show, it can happen to anyone.'

Even if the bond is strong, there are no guarantees it will always be that way. 'Bonding is about connectedness, and that can ebb and flow over the years,' Pat Spungin says. 'For some of that time you might not get on with one child if they're going through a difficult period, and suddenly it can all change back again. The love itself is still there – that's why parents hang on in during those difficult teenage years – but you may feel you don't like your child very much.'

For 36-year-old Susan, an insurance administrator from Cardiff, this is her everyday reality. 'I used to spend hours playing with Dan when he was little, cuddling him, singing his favourite pop songs to him. He was the first of my four children and got lots of attention. Now he's 17 and I can't get through to him. I do wonder if I did something wrong, but the others have turned out fine. I did make some bad choices when he and his sister were little – staying longer than I should have done with his father.'

When he was 11, Dan's behaviour changed dramatically. 'He went from being a sweet, loving boy to one who broke windows and was verbally abusive.' Today it is not unusual for him to swear at Susan and then retreat into prolonged silences. 'The relationship we have is much worse than the one he has with anyone else. Over the years I've tried grounding him, taking his iPod from him – nothing has worked. He goes out and doesn't come home when he should, lies and steals money from my purse or his brothers' money boxes.'

Susan's friends also recount tales of not being able to 'reach' their teen offspring, but she feels Dan's behaviour is more extreme than most. She suspects he resents the fact she went on to have another two children with her new husband, Ray. According to Pat Spungin, 'Staying out later than you agreed falls within normal teen behaviour. Being destructive with property doesn't. If the child has step-parents, that can complicate matters, but most teens come out the other side if there's love and support.' Although Susan feels her bond has weakened, her love hasn't waned. 'But it breaks my heart that I don't like the child I love so much,' she says. 'In a month he's joining the Army; I feel guilty because when he was 13 I suggested the Cadets as a route to focusing his energy. I'm frightened and hate him leaving when our relationship is this way. And yet he wanted to take time off before joining and I said no. I'm looking forward to no arguments. Yes, I feel guilty about that, too.'

Richard Woolfson says that when parents worry about the bond they have with their children, most give themselves a hard time and little credit for what they've done right. He believes every woman has the potential to be a loving mother but some find motherhood harder than others. 'Accept who you are and stay involved, no matter how many barriers they put up. Few of us become the parents we want to be – I certainly didn't. And remember, only one parent can be the best in the world. The rest of us will have to settle for second best.'

Source:, United Kingdom