As a new parent, you've heard that bonding with your baby is crucial for both of you. You're eager to experience that magical connection between parent and child.

But when reality hits, building that bond with your baby might seem harder than you thought it would be.

This new person in your life requires round-the-clock care. Add in the fact that you're likely recovering from the physical demands of giving birth and visiting with family and friends anxious to see the baby, and it's hard to think about much beyond the sleep you're not getting. How can you focus on bonding with your child when you're so exhausted?

What Bonding Means

When the experts talk about bonding, what they're referring to is the feeling of connection and protectiveness parents feel toward their infants. As they develop, babies develop attachments to their caregivers. These attachments help infants feel secure and able to develop strong relationships with people when they get older.

New parents – especially mothers – are often led to expect an idealized picture of "falling in love" with their children right in the delivery room. But for many the bond between parent and child builds over a few weeks or months. Either way is fine.

Susan Spieker, director of the Center on Infant Mental Health and Development at the University of Washington, says the way you bond with your newborn is influenced by a number of factors. Was the delivery difficult? Did your baby have unexpected health problems? Is your baby colicky? Are you at risk for postpartum depression?

"Don't continually beat yourself up by thinking, 'Am I feeling the right thing?' " Spieker says. "You're feeling what you're feeling."

Ways to Bond

Much of the bonding between you and your baby takes place while you're meeting your newborn's needs. Taking care of yourself is important, too.

Touch your baby's skin. As a baby is being born, his mother's body starts to release hormones that stimulate bonding between her and the infant, explains Linda Folden Palmer, author of The Baby Bond. The main hormone, oxytocin, is released during breastfeeding and when parents hold their babies. This is why Palmer says newborns need as much skin-to-skin contact with their parents as possible. Try to hold your baby next to your chest in the first minutes of his life.

Skin-to-skin contact promotes bonding throughout the first weeks of a baby's life, so it's helpful even if you're not able to hold your baby right after he's born. An ideal time for snuggling is while you're feeding the baby, whether at the breast or with a bottle.

Look into your child's eyes. New babies also secrete hormones that promote bonding and connect with their parents by looking into their eyes. "The baby has these hormones gushing out, and it wants to imprint on something," Palmer says.

Play calm music. Dean Haddock, a California therapist who works with families, says that listening to calming music while you hold your baby will help soothe both of you when you're stressed.

Sleep when the baby sleeps. You need all the sleep you can get, and it's hard to rest when you're caring for a newborn who’s awake. "Try to get your sleep whenever you can," Spieker says.

Teach your baby about day and night. When infants are born, they have no concept of the difference between night and day, so their sleep cycles make little sense. Once they learn this difference they'll get more and more of their sleep when you want to get your own shut-eye. Spieker says putting a baby to bed in a dark, quiet place helps her learn to sleep more at night.

Sleep next to your baby. Palmer encourages breastfeeding mothers to nurse their babies while lying down. Nursing makes mothers and newborns sleepy and they can fall asleep after a feeding. "Ideally, baby and mom should just drift off together," she says. If you're not comfortable sleeping in the same bed as your child, you can place him nearby in a bassinet or co-sleeper that attaches to an adult bed.

Spend time near your newborn. Being near your new baby helps you respond to her cues. Carry your infant around in a baby carrier so you can cuddle while going about your day.

Let others help. Friends and relatives often line up to spend time with new babies and their parents. Accept their offers to bring dinner, watch an older child, fold laundry or hold your baby while you sleep. If you're not sure you trust another person with your child, Haddock says, first ask him to hold the baby while you watch.

Building a bond with your newborn is essential, but fortunately for exhausted new parents, it requires little energy. And don't feel guilty about stealing a few hours of precious sleep. Caring for your baby is easier when you take care of yourself.