Transition to Parenthood

Key Messages

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These are the main health messages that should be conveyed to all future and new parents. They have been written in the second person and at a reading level appropriate for the general public so that they can be shared with them directly. They are based on a consensus founded in scientific research and professional practice. Clicking an underlined word or group of words in the text will redirect you to the section in Supporting Evidence that deals with that topic.

The birth of a baby brings joy and challenges to the lives of parents.

You may have many different emotions after your baby is born. You may feel joy, wonder, and happiness as well as feel overwhelmed, worried, or tired at different times. These are all normal feelings after the birth of a baby. Caring for a baby is often demanding and can leave little time for rest and other things.
A new baby means many changes for parents. It can take several months to get comfortable with your new role as a parent.

You can prepare for parenting during pregnancy.

There are things you can do during pregnancy to help you prepare for parenting, which include learning about:

  • Being a parent.
  • What supplies you will need for the new baby.
  • Breastfeeding.
  • Healthy growth and development of a newborn.
  • Immunizations needed for a baby in the first year of life.
  • Pregnancy/parental leave and benefits.

If you have a partner, you can both prepare for parenting by talking about:

  • How you feel about becoming a parent.
  • How you will share daily tasks.
  • How to get enough sleep after the baby arrives.
  • How you want to raise your child.

A maternity or parental leave allows you or your partner to be at home with your baby for a period of time after the birth of your baby. This is a very important time for you to be together. You can about learn about maternity and parenting leaves and benefits by:

To learn about your rights during pregnancy and while breastfeeding visit the Ontario Human Rights Commission at

Build a support network before your baby is born.

By planning ahead, it will be easier for you to access support after the baby is born. Ask family and friends to help out with things such as meal preparation and housework when you need it. You can find out about parenting groups and other supports in your community by contacting your local:

  • Service Ontario: 1-866-532-3161
  • Ontario Early Years Centres: 1-866-821-7770.

If you have a partner, your relationship may change after your baby is born. This may be especially true if this is your first baby when you move from being a couple to becoming a family.

Caring for a newborn takes a lot of time and effort. Sometimes parents have difficulty finding time for each other.
During your pregnancy, talk to your partner about:

  • The changes the birth of your baby will bring.
  • How you will support each other in caring for your baby.
  • How you will nurture your relationship once your baby is born.
  • When you might feel comfortable having sex after the birth.
  • How you will support each other to keep up your own interests.
  • How to recognize signs of physical or mental health concerns, such as postpartum depression.

If you have trouble resolving conflict, you can get help to learn to communicate better.

The emotional connection you develop with your baby can help you adjust to your new role as a parent.

During pregnancy, you begin to develop an emotional connection to your baby. It is fostered as you talk to your unborn baby and touch your belly. After the birth, this connection can be strengthened as you:

  • Hold your new baby skin-to-skin.
  • Play with and talk to your baby.
  • Respond to your baby’s needs.

The pleasure of holding and playing with your baby will help you feel capable in your role as a parent. Your baby will benefit from this too. It helps your baby’s brain develop. Fathers, partners, and other support people can also develop this emotional connection with the new baby.

Take time to take care of yourself so that you are best able to take care of your baby.

Being a parent can be very demanding physically and emotionally. It is important to take care of your own needs as well as your newborn’s needs. You will feel better if you:

    1. Eat regular, healthy meals.
    2. Get enough sleep.
    3. Accept that sometimes not all your tasks will get done.
    4. Share your child’s care with your partner and/or other support people.
    5. Engage in physical activity.
    6. Engage in social activities or personal hobbies that you enjoy.

Ask for help and support in the early months after your baby is born.

It is normal to have questions and concerns about transitioning to parenthood. The support of your family or of someone who has experience with children can be very helpful. You can find out more about being a new parent from the following resources. More suggestions can be found in the Resources and Links section.

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Supporting Evidence

The supporting evidence is written in third person and is aimed at prenatal education providers. It is not intended to be shared directly with new and expectant families; it is meant to provide the background information and evidence for the key messages.

About Parenthood

Defining Parenthood

Parenting is a great responsibility. Young children completely depend on their parents for survival. They depend on them for physical care and protection as well as affection, intellectual stimulation, and guidance. Research shows that the type of care and support children receive from their parents can have both a positive or negative effect on their growth and development. For optimal growth and development, children need consistent, sensitive, and adequate care.1, 2

Parenthood can be a time of great joy for new parents, but it can also be a physically demanding and stressful time – especially during the first couple of weeks at home with a new baby. Some new parents view parenthood as one of the most joyous times in their lives, and they find pleasure in watching their child grow and develop. Other new parents do not always find this same great pleasure in interacting with their child. New parents who may not have planned their pregnancy, or had an unexpected outcome, are at risk for potentially negative feelings towards parenthood. Young parents, those in a poor financial situation, and those with a limited support system may also experience stress, which can interfere with their ability to enjoy parenthood and/or form secure attachments with their child. 3,4,5 To successfully guide new parents through their journey into parenthood it is important to first understand what the new parents feel and believe about parenthood.

National and provincial statistics

In 2013, it was estimated that there were 142,448 births in Ontario. During the last decade, the number of births has steadily increased. Between 2009 and 2013, there was a 1.9 percent increase in the number of births (139,771 births in 2009)6 and between 2006 and 2013 a 5.1 percent increase in the number of births (135,595 births in 2006).7

The average age of mothers having their first child in Ontario and in Canada is also increasing.7 This increase has been attributed to more women spending a longer time in post-secondary education thereby delaying childrearing until later in life.7, 8 The average age of women who gave birth in 2008 in Ontario was 30 years while the average age of women who gave birth in Canada in 1991 was 27.7 years.7

Changes are also being observed in the structure of families today. The proportion of women having children outside of marriage is increasing. According to Canadian census data, in 1961 married couples accounted for 91.6 percent of all families while in 2011 married couples accounted for only 67.0 percent of all families. The decrease in married couples is explained by the increased number of common-law relationships and lone-parent families today. In 1961 in Canada lone-parent families accounted for only 8.4 percent of all families while in 2011 lone-parent families accounted for 16.3 percent of all families. The amount of lone-parent families today as compared to 1961 has, therefore, almost doubled. It is important to also note that female lone-parent families (1.1 million in 2006) are more prevalent than male lone-parent families (281,800 in 2006). The number of male lone-parent families is increasing.9

These trends help to explain some of the strains associated with parenthood, including financial and time constraints. To devote more time to caring for their child, lone parents may benefit from receiving more support, whether that is in the form of involvement of the other parent or from another support person in their lives. This is important to consider as the number of lone-parent families in Canada is increasing at a significant rate.9

Adjusting to parenthood

Becoming a parent for the first time is a major life event.5 It can affect all aspects of an individual’s and a couple’s life. 10,11,12 It is important to note that during the first few weeks, it is normal for new parents to feel increased psychological stress as they adjust to life with their baby.13,14 This referred to as the period of transition to parenthood.15 Despite some expectant parents’ best efforts to prepare for a baby, new parents can still feel surprised and overwhelmed by the intensity of care a newborn requires.14, 16 

Several studies show it is often only when women return home with their newborn that they realize how much time and energy, as well as learning, is required to provide adequate care for a child.14 Most parents successfully adjust to parenthood by devising concrete ways to include a child in their lives. Successful transition often depends on whether or not new parents have the necessary personal, social, and financial resources in their lives.17, 18,19

If new parents lack the needed resources, the overwhelming nature of the period of transition to parenthood can be detrimental to their overall health and well-being in the long term.20,21,22,23  Consistent and responsive care is one of the strongest predictors of self-regulation. New parents at risk of poor adjustment to parenthood need to be identified and given the opportunity to access additional resources to help prevent detrimental outcomes to themselves and to their developing child.5,10

Who is at Risk?

Identifying those at risk for poor transition to parenthood

The period of transition to parenthood can be more difficult for people who:

  • Do not have a strong support system.24
  • Have a history of mental health challenges or naturally anxious personalities.25
  • Are of low socioeconomic status.26,27
  • Experienced conflicts in their marital or partner relationship prior to parenthood.28
  • Gave birth to a child with physical or mental complications.29
  • Experienced unforeseen life events during the transition period such as a job loss,30 a spousal separation,28 or an illness or death within the immediate family.31

Other vulnerable groups of people may be at risk for poor adjustment to parenthood as well. This could include young parents, those involved with child protection services, those who have substance use issues, and newcomers to Canada who may not have a support network or know how to access external support. Identifying those at risk of poor adjustment to parenthood should be part of a practitioner’s initial and ongoing assessment with new parents.

Successfully Preparing for Parenthood

Attending prenatal classes

Factors that negatively affect a new parent’s ability to successfully transition to parenthood include not being prepared for a life with a newborn and not knowing how to care for a newborn.32 To be able to provide safe and competent care to a newborn, new parents need to learn new skills. Prenatal classes that cover topics like the prenatal period, labour and delivery, the postpartum period, and parenting can be greatly beneficial.

Most prenatal classes include topics related to parenting such as:

  • What to expect in the first few days and weeks after delivery.
  • How to prepare a safe sleep environment for a newborn.
  • How to bathe a newborn.
  • How to breastfeed a newborn.
  • How to appropriately stimulate a child to encourage their development.33,34,35,36

All new parents should be encouraged to attend prenatal classes. Before expectant parents register for prenatal classes, they should be advised to check on the qualifications of the person conducting the classes and the content that will be covered (some provide information only on prenatal health or only about birth).33

Many health units across Ontario now offer the option of online prenatal classes. Online prenatal classes provide parents with relevant prenatal and parenting information but may not provide the same opportunity to learn hands-on skills (e.g., bathing a newborn) or to form friendships with other new parents as in group prenatal classes.37 They can, however, be beneficial for very busy expectant parents or expectant parents from rural communities who cannot access a location where a course is offered. Before enrolling in prenatal classes, expectant parents should be encouraged to consider which method of instruction will be most beneficial for them.

Gathering supplies

A number of items are needed to adequately care for a newborn. At the most basic level, a newborn requires a safe place to sleep, a place to be bathed, diapers, and clothing. Additionally, a newborn requires a safe environment and a suitable car seat for car travel. See the Newborn Safety file for more information on creating a safe environment and related topics. As a newborn grows, he or she will also need stimulating toys to encourage his or her development.38,39

It is important to have expectant parents begin thinking about the supplies that they will need for their newborn. Purchasing or acquiring supplies before a child is born can prevent stress for new parents after the child is born.38,40  Suggesting potential supplies to expectant parents may also be beneficial in helping them plan how they will organize their finances once their baby is born. More information about this can be found in the Newborn Care file.

Encouraging parents to prepare some things ahead of time (e.g., making a few meals and storing them in the freezer), can also help to alleviate stress in the first few weeks with their new baby and ease their transition into parenthood.

Setting realistic expectations regarding the division of tasks in parenting

New parents may experience conflict in their relationships when parental expectations pertaining to the division of tasks are not formally decided upon prior to parenthood. Research has shown that if parents discuss and consider their expectations prior to the birth of their baby, they may experience less stress and anxiety during parenthood, feel more in control of their situation, and experience more satisfaction within their relationship with their partner as well as with their child.

Expectant parents should be encouraged to set realistic expectations towards parenthood during the prenatal period concerning how they will:40,41,42,43

  • Manage their time between caring for a child, household work, and employment responsibilities.
  • Manage their finances.
  • Ensure that they get enough sleep once the baby arrives.
  • Be involved in the life of the child.
  • Feed the baby.
  • Raise the child.

If a parent is raising his or her child alone it is equally important that he or she take the time to consider his or her expectations during the prenatal period and possibly even discuss these expectations with his or her support people to ensure optimal support and success during the transition to parenthood.40,42,43,44

Building a support network

The transition to parenthood often requires that parents seek support from a variety of external sources. This support base should be comprised of care providers and a social network of people that new parents can turn to for advice, emotional support, and practical assistance (e.g., help with household chores, caregiving, etc.).

Some studies also stress the need for new parents to have a mentor or an experienced parent as a part of their support team to guide them and to reassure them in regard to their feelings and experiences. This person is often the mother of one of the new parents.

Overall, it is important for expectant parents to organize a support base during pregnancy so that if any issues arise with the baby, they have a list of people to reach out to for help. Preparing a list of support people and their telephone numbers is a good strategy. Even if new parents do not use their support network during their transition to parenthood, just knowing that it exists can greatly ease their anxieties.114,17,44,45

The following is a list of possible supports in preparation for transition to parenthood.

For health care support and advice:

  • Health care providers (i.e., family physician, midwife, Nurse Practitioner, prenatal educator, public health unit).
  • Ontario Early Years Centres.
  • Daycare centres or future babysitters.
  • Social workers or counsellors.

For emotional support and practical assistance:

  • Family.
  • Friends.
  • Peer or mother to mother support groups such as La Leche League.
  • A postpartum doula.
  • Neighbours.
  • Co-workers.
  • Spiritual leaders.

Pregnancy and parental leave

The Employment Standard Act (ESA) regulates the ability for employees who are pregnant or are new parents to take unpaid time off work. The federal Employment Insurance Act regulates maternity and/or parental benefits that may be payable to the employee during the period he or she is off on an ESA pregnancy or parental leave. The rules governing the right to take time off of work are different from the rules governing how maternal and parental benefits are paid.

In order to take advantage of these benefits, parents should be advised to investigate their options and eligibility requirements. The specific requirements for these benefits are explained in detail in government websites and documents such as Service Canada.46

In addition, some employers offer financial benefits to “top-up” what the government provides. The employer’s human resources department would be able to provide more information about the company’s pregnancy and parental policies and benefits. In many cases, up to a year of maternity leave may be possible, but the amount of financial compensation will depend on the person’s employment situation. See the Resources and Links section for more information.

Pregnancy leave

Employed pregnant women are entitled to an unpaid pregnancy leave of 17 weeks (or longer in certain circumstances).46 A woman is entitled to pregnancy leave regardless of whether she works full-time or part-time and whether she is a permanent employee or not provided that she is:46

  • Employed by an employer that is covered by the ESA
  • Started her employment at least 13 weeks before the expected due date of the baby although it is not necessary she actively work the 13 weeks prior to the due date.
Parental leave

New parents can take parental leave, a time of unpaid time off work when a baby is born. This is different from a pregnancy leave. Women who take a pregnancy leave are entitled to up to 35 weeks of a parental leave once the baby is born; women who do not take a pregnancy leave, and all other new parents, are entitled to up to 37 weeks of parental leave.46

Again, a new parent is entitled to parental leave, whether he or she works full-time, part-time, or is a permanent employee or not, provided that he or she is:46

  • Employed by an employer that is covered by the ESA.
  • Started his or her employment at least 13 weeks before commencing the parental leave.

As defined by the Ontario Ministry of Labour, a “parent” includes:46

  • A birth parent.
  • An adoptive parent.
  • A person who is in a relationship of some permanence with a parent of the child and who plans on treating the child as his or her own. This includes same-sex couples.
Rights of parents on pregnancy or parental leave

Women who are on a pregnancy leave, or parents who are on parental leave, have the right to:46

  • Return to the same job (or a similar job if the original job no longer exists upon return).
  • Not to be penalized for planning to take or taking a pregnancy or parental leave.
  • Continue to participate in benefit plans (if they continue to make their contributions while on leave).
  • Continue accruing credits for length of employment, length of service, and seniority while on leave.

To learn more about rights of pregnant and breastfeeding women, visit the Ontario Human Rights Commission at

Employment insurance maternity and parental benefits

A woman may be eligible to receive Employment Insurance (EI) maternity benefits if she is unable to work because she is pregnant or has recently given birth. The maximum time available to receive maternity benefits is 15 weeks. The 15 weeks can start eight weeks before the expected date of birth or can be started after the birth and end 17 weeks after the date of the birth.

A biological, adoptive, or legally-recognized parent who is caring for a newborn or newly-adopted child may be eligible to receive Employment Insurance (EI) parental benefits. These benefits are available for a maximum of 35 weeks. They can be assumed by one parent or shared between two parents in the same family.46

Parents can determine if they are eligible for maternity and/or parental benefits through Service Canada. It is important that parents know that they must apply for maternity and parental benefits through Service Canada. Parents can contact Service Canada through:

Supporting a Positive Transition to Life with Baby

The transition period

To successfully assist new parents with their journey into parenthood, it is important to first understand the challenges that new parents face in the period of transition to parenthood. There are many challenges associated with parenthood. They can be grouped as follows:

  • The demands of caring for a child.
  • Fatigue and mood during the early weeks.
  • Adaptations for life with a new baby.
The demands of caring for a child

It often takes new parents a considerable amount of time to adjust to the many needs of a newborn. As new parents learn how to care for a newborn, they often find the following three tasks to be particularly stressful or demanding:41,47,48,49,50

  • Coping with a newborn’s cries.
  • Carrying out new tasks.
  • Breastfeeding.

Coping with a newborn’s cries
Some new parents can find that newborns cry much more than expected in the first few months of life. These parents can struggle to understand why the baby is crying and how to appropriately respond to and soothe the crying baby. It is important for new parents to understand that sometimes crying is normal behaviour, that crying tends to peak during the first few months of life, and that the child will eventually grow out of crying episodes.

It is also important, however, that health care professionals do not disregard or undermine the frustration felt by parents. If parents are not given the adequate support that they need when they feel frustrated over not being able to console their crying newborn, this can lead to feelings of isolation, anxiety, and depression for them.47

As well, if caregivers do not understand the crying episodes, or do not have the skills needed to cope with them, the frustration that they feel could lead them to cause harm to the child. An infant’s head is large in comparison with the rest of its body and shaking an infant could cause severe neurological damage and even death – a condition referred to as Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS).51,52  While it is best to respond to a baby’s cries, let parents know it is okay to put the baby safely in the crib to cry for a short time to take a break. Advise them to call someone for help during these stressful times such a trusted relative, friend, or care provider. For more information about comforting babies, please refer to the Newborn Care file.

Carrying out new tasks
For many new parents, it will be the first time they will change a baby’s diaper, bathe a baby, and dress a baby. They may feel surprised or overwhelmed at the amount of time, care, and preparation that these tasks involve. Within a few weeks, however, most parents will develop a new level of comfort and confidence with these tasks. In order to positively support new parents’ transition into parenthood, it is important to support them as they learn how to care for their newborns and remind them that it takes time to learn new parenting skills.41,47

Another aspect of newborn care is ensuring that the newborn receives adequate nutrition. Breastfeeding is an intimate relationship between a mother and her newborn. Her partner can be involved by supporting her decision to breastfeed and by caring for the baby as much as possible (e.g., burping the baby, changing the baby, and rocking the baby).49 More information related to feeding, and the role of the partner can be found in Breastfeeding.

Fatigue and mood during the early weeks

In the first few weeks following a child’s birth, it is common for new parents to feel both physically and mentally exhausted.14,41,47,53  Parents need to adjust their sleep patterns to accommodate the newborn’s night feedings. It is important that parents get sleep during the transition period as a lack of sleep can cause irritability, anxiety, and depression.54,55,56

To get enough sleep, parents are encouraged to:

  • Sleep or rest when the baby sleeps.
  • Make their sleep environment comfortable, quiet, dark, and clutter-free.
  • Engage in activities that help them wind down before going to sleep (e.g., having a bath, reading a book, or listening to soft music).
  • Avoid or limit foods high in caffeine or sugar throughout the day.
  • Let go of unrealistic expectations (e.g., trying to have a perfectly clean and tidy house).

Parents may find themselves bringing their baby into bed with them to catch up with their sleep. Refer to the Newborn Safety file for key messages and information about safe sleep. Remind parents that the safest place for a baby to sleep for the first six months of life is in their own crib, cradle, or bassinet in the parent’s room. Help parents accept the fact that they will be tired during the first few months of parenthood. It will help them to know that it is normal to be up every two to three hours in the early weeks, but that by three months, feedings may be less frequent, and they may be able to sleep longer periods. It is normal for babies to continue to wake during the night for several months. In the meantime, they may wish to set realistic expectations of how they will get the sleep they need.57

Please note that if parents express concerns that they can’t sleep, are afraid to sleep, or are experiencing an overwhelming sense of irritability, anxiety, or symptoms of depression, they should be advised to promptly seek medical attention to address or prevent a mental health crises.53,54,55  For more information, refer to the file on Mental Health.

Adaptations for life with a new baby

During the period of transition to parenthood, some new parents experience feelings of loss over certain aspects of their personal lives. They may not be able to engage in some of the activities that they previously enjoyed. They may find that their appearance has changed, and they have less time to spend on themselves. They may also have less time or energy to engage in intimate or sexual activities with their partner. Additionally, they may experience strains on their financial situation.58,59,60

It is important to help parents realize that while they will need to make some adaptations in their personal life, it is important for them to take time for themselves and others in their life. Without that, they may struggle in their adjustment to parenthood.57,59

Overall, it is important to make new parents aware of the life changes and challenges presented here and emphasize that they are a normal part of the transition to parenthood. It is also important to emphasize that there are healthy ways to cope with these challenges and to successfully ease their transition into parenthood.

Taking time for yourself

In order to optimally care for and nurture a newborn, parents need to take care of themselves. They need to take the time to eat healthy meals, exercise, and engage in social activities and hobbies they enjoy. If they do not, they put themselves at risk of becoming both physically and emotionally unwell. It can be helpful for new parents to know that short breaks (i.e., 10 – 20 minutes) can be beneficial for them.

These breaks can occur while their newborn is sleeping or while a person they trust cares for their newborn. Instead of cleaning or doing laundry during these breaks, suggest having a relaxing bath, talking on the telephone, watching television, going for a walk, or having lunch with a friend.

Successful adjustment

It is important to support new parents in their transition to parenthood. Parents who experience a difficult transition may experience more personal health problems, and the development and health of their baby may suffer.5,14,18,32,61

For new parents to successfully adjust to parenthood, they need to realize they need to adapt their personal lives to accommodate the baby. This often involves finding a new balance in their lives.5,14,32  Adjusting to parenthood does not occur instantaneously. It may take three to six months and up to two years before new parents feel comfortable caring for their child. For some parents, it can take up to two years before they feel completely comfortable in their new role as a parent.14

When talking with parents about their transition to parenthood, it is important to highlight that parenthood is a period of growth and change. New parents can be hard on themselves, and it is helpful to emphasize that it takes time to be comfortable with their new role as a parent. Highlight their strengths and successes to increase their self-esteem.62

Asking for help and support

It is important for new parents to have a list of support people and to ask for help when they feel they need it. Asking for help is a positive coping mechanism and is in the best interest of their child.14,17,44,45  See the section Building a support network above for more information.

Fostering a Strong Marital/Partner Relationship

Changes to expect in the marital/partner relationship

Different studies have noted an improved relationship between couples following the birth of their baby.63 For some couples, temporary changes in the dynamic of the relationship or dissatisfaction are a normal part of the period of transition to parenthood and the issues usually resolve by the time the child is eleven months old.64

For some couples, the birth of a child can cause dissatisfaction within their relationship. This can stem from the demands of parenting, increased household tasks, financial changes, and less time for intimacy for the couple.18,65

Sexual intimacy

Many couples are able to continue sexual intimacy following childbirth.66 However, a large proportion of couples report a decrease in sexual activity during the period of transition to parenthood. In a large-scale study, it was reported that only 14 percent of women and 12 percent of men report no sexual problems during the postpartum period.65

Problems pertaining to sexual intimacy during the postpartum period can be largely explained by:62,65,67

  • Hormonal changes that occur following birth.
  • Changes related to a woman’s body image following childbirth, especially if she had a caesarean section, an episiotomy, or laceration.
  • Conflicts related to roles and the division of tasks with respect to caring for their child and household chores.
  • Conflicts over finances.
  • Fatigue.

For more information about sexual intimacy after childbirth and ways to cope with changes associated with childbirth, see the Recovery after Birth file.

Couples at risk of experiencing a disruptive conflict in their relationship

Couples at increased risk for relationship conflicts in the postpartum period include those who:

  • Have experienced conflicts in their relationship before the pregnancy.18,64,68,69
  • Have a poor communication style.62,70,71,72,73
  • Have experienced the loss of a child.74
  • Are dealing with postpartum depression.14,75

It is important to recognize these risk factors to help prevent conflict and preserve the health of the relationship and the child.76,77,78  It has been shown that children whose parents regularly express anger towards each other are at a higher risk of developing emotional and behavioural problems.75 Comparatively, the results from Canada’s National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth indicate that children display fewer behavioural problems when their parents give them affection and provide them with a happy home.79

Learning to communicate more effectively

Couples who experience conflict can benefit greatly from learning to communicate more effectively with each other. To become better communicators, couples are encouraged to:62,80,81

  • Review their communication style.
  • Review how they respond to conflict.
  • Learn how to effectively collaborate with their partner when conflicts arise.
  • Utilize the services of a mediator or a counsellor.

Couples who have difficulties managing conflict by themselves may need to be referred to a professional such as a psychologist, social worker, or counsellor to help them work through their issues.75,77  Some workplaces provide employees, and their families, with Employee and Family Assistance Programs (EFAPs). These are confidential third-party services designed to assist people with personal problems by offering counselling services and other such resources.82 Encourage new parents to explore possible support offered through their employer.

Setting realistic expectations for managing marital/partner conflicts

If a couple learns to effectively communicate, maintain satisfaction with the relationship, and share co-parenting responsibilities prior to the birth of their baby, the number of conflicts that arise during parenthood can be reduced.63,69,78

Topics which expectant parents should discuss prior to parenthood include:66,68,80

  • Changes to their sex life. (It is recommended to wait at least six weeks following the birth to allow a woman time to heal from the birth.)
  • How they will take time to nurture their relationship.
  • How they will support each other in caring for the baby.
  • How they will recognize signs of postpartum depression in each other.*

*Parental mental health problems must be recognized as soon as possible and shared with a health care professional so that the person can receive help.53,54,80  To obtain more information on mental health problems and disorders, please consult the Mental Health file.

Encouraging the Development of a Relationship between Parents and Their Child

The difference between bonding and attachment

Bonding is the process whereby parents develop an emotional connection to their baby. This is a one-way process as it is usually initiated by the parent. Attachment, on the other hand, can be described as a reciprocal, interactive relationship between a parent and the infant. It develops as parents learn to respond to their baby’s cues, thereby forming a bond of trust.

Attachment development depends on how or if the parent responds. Attachment is discussed in more detail in the Newborn Care file.

It is important to facilitate and support the development of an emotional connection between a child and the parent(s). This promotes the psychological and emotional well-being of the parent(s) as well as the developing child. For optimal child development, a child needs to receive adequate support, cognitive stimulation, and love.83,84,85,86  This process can begin during pregnancy and continues after birth.

Relationship development during pregnancy

The relationship between a parent and their child starts developing well before the baby is born.10 Once women discover that they are pregnant (or even before they become pregnant), they voluntarily modify some of their lifestyle habits (e.g., eating healthier, exercising more, and abstaining from consuming alcohol or smoking).41

Although many fathers/partners have a general desire to establish a connection with their baby, it is sometimes more difficult for them to engage in the bonding process during early pregnancy.58,87  The emotional connection between future fathers/partners and their unborn baby generally grows during the pregnancy.88,89

During pregnancy, expectant parents progressively construct an image of their baby (e.g., tenderly caress the stomach of the expectant woman or talk, sing, or read to the unborn baby), which helps to facilitate a strong emotional bond. 83,84  A couple’s desire to establish a connection with their unborn child and to make its presence concrete, also occurs through the acquisition of items required to care for the child, preparing the child’s room, choosing a name or a nickname for the child, reading about child development, and participating in prenatal classes.90

Depression, anxiety, and alcohol or drug use are all factors that can prevent the development of an emotional connection with one’s unborn child. Parents who do not develop a connection with their child in utero are at risk of feeling distanced from their child once they are born as well as during the first two months following the birth. It is important to facilitate the bonding process for expectant parents during pregnancy.10

Relationship development after the birth

Skin-to-skin contact (i.e., holding the baby naked, chest-to-chest, against the mother’s or father’s/partner’s torso and then covering both with a blanket), is a great way to support the establishment of an emotional bond between parents and their newborn. This practice can be performed immediately after birth and thereafter.91,92 Skin-to-skin contact between a mother and her newborn can have a positive effect on breastfeeding as well. Placing a baby skin-to-skin with his or her mother for the first full hour of life or until completion of the first feeding is one of the Ten Steps to successful breastfeeding outlined by the World Health Organization as part of the Baby-Friendly Initiative.93 See the file on Breastfeeding for more information. During the first weeks and months of life, continued skin-to-skin practice will support breastfeeding, permit the baby to discover the world from a secure place, and help the parents to feel close to their newborn.90,91

The first few years of a child’s life is a sensitive period in which key development processes take place. For optimal child development, children should be provided with stimulation, support, and nurturing.39 As a child grows and develops, group-based parenting programs (where a child is given the opportunity to interact with their parents and other children of varying ages in a stimulating environment), have been shown to be beneficial in the development of their emotional and behavioural skills.94

Ontario Early Years Centres and numerous other local community and for-profit parent/child programs available throughout the province can provide just such an environment.

For more information about healthy growth and development, see the Newborn Care and Newborn Safety files.


When to refer

During the period of transition to parenthood, parents should be encouraged to immediately seek assistance from a health care provider if they:

  • Are unable to cope with daily tasks of their life with a baby and who no longer find joy in activities that they once found pleasure in.
  • Recognize signs of postpartum depression in either themselves or in their partner.
  • Have suicidal ideations.
  • Are experiencing unresolved conflict in their marital or partner relationship.
  • Are experiencing pressure or abuse in their relationship.
  • Are unable to form a bond with their baby.

Where to refer

Parents with the aforementioned difficulties are encouraged to consult:

  • Their primary health care provider.
  • A psychologist, psychiatrist, or other health care practitioner who can offer specialized mental health care services.
  • A social worker and/or a marriage counsellor.

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Resources & Links

Please note this is not an exhaustive list of available resources, nor should any of these resources be used in place of seeking professional advice. The resources cited throughout this resource are not necessarily endorsed by the Best Start Resource Centre or the Government of Ontario. When in doubt, professionals should contact the organization responsible for issuing a specific recommendation/practice guideline.

Professional Guidelines




Prenatal Education Provider Tools

Client Resources and Handouts


  • Bernstein, J. (2003). Why can’t you read my mind?: Overcoming the 9 toxic thought patterns that get in the way of a loving relationship. Boston, MA: Da Capo Press.
  • Roumeliotis, P. (2014). Baby comes home: A parent’s guide to a healthy and well first 18 months. Vancouver, BC: Influence Publishing.


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